By S. Clayton Moore
An accident in the fog-covered hills of Southern California claimed the lives of two enthusiastic supporters of the Cessna Aircraft Company on March 28. Rick Voorhis, owner of Pacific Aircraft Sales, Inc., a Caravan dealership in Reno, Nev., and Steve O’Neill, Cessna’s regional sales manager for the Caravan, for the western U.S. and Canada, were onboard.
Voorhis and O’Neill were flying a demonstrator Caravan owned by Cessna when it went down. No other aircraft were involved. Cessna owned the 208B Caravan, used to demonstrate the plane’s features for customers. O’Neill and Voorhis were flying to Ontario International Airport to show off the plane to a potential Cessna customer.
Between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., the six-seater Caravan crashed into the San Gorgonio pass, in the mountains north of Yucaipa, Calif. The National Weather Service in San Diego reported that the area was socked in with heavy fog, rain and wind gusts up to 45 mph. Those conditions likely gave the two experienced pilots zero visibility.
Inmates at the California Department of Forestry Conservation work camp at Oak Glen, Calif., initially spotted the plane around 5 p.m. They reported seeing a low-flying Cessna with the Caravan’s familiar red-and-white paint scheme that appeared to be having engine trouble.
Robert Law, a nearby buffalo rancher, saw the plane hit the snow-covered mountain at about 6,100 feet elevation.
“It was flying low, not high enough to clear the mountain,” he said. “If the plane had turned, it would have made it, but they probably didn’t know the area.”
The county’s search-and-rescue team set out to search for survivors that evening but was forced to wait until morning because of the poor weather conditions. Cessna flew O’Neill’s family to California to await news.
More than 80 people from the search team and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection set out at 7 a.m. the next morning to resume the search. The search crews were dogged by low temperatures and rough terrain made worse by the heavy rain. After blazing a trail through dense brush and a foot of snow, rescue crews uncovered the wreckage around 9:30 a.m., nearly two miles northwest of the conservation camp.
The accident marks the second crash in the steep mountains in recent years. In February 2005, a flight instructor and two students were killed when their Piper Cherokee crashed west of Oak Glen.
The Federal Aviation Administration, Cessna and engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney are all assisting with the ongoing investigation. Following the accident, the FAA instituted temporary flight restrictions around the pass to provide a safe environment for accident investigators.
Born in Wichita, K.S., in 1961, Steve O’Neill graduated from the School of the Magdalen, Kapaun Mt. Carmel. He later received a degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Kansas, where he was a loyal member of the Alpha Kappa Lambda fraternity.
Putting his education to work, he found success as a petroleum engineer, working for 17 years in the oil fields of Kansas and Texas. In later years, he combined his passion for aviation with the management and sales skills he had acquired. He joined Cessna in August 2000, as single-engine division sales manager for the eastern United States. In 2003, he was promoted to market Caravans across the western half of the country.
O’Neill’s family described him as a devoted husband and son, who delighted in his children.
“He was like Superman,” said his sister, Sharon O’Neill McKeighan. “There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do, any problem he couldn’t solve. He was warm and witty and wise and wonderful.”
His pilot skills were first rate, according to those who worked with O’Neill in the regional aviation community. O’Neill had a solid reputation for his business acumen as well as his detailed knowledge of the Cessna Caravan.
“He knew that airplane inside and out,” said Steve Dunne, president of Midwest Corporate Aviation Aircraft Sales and a Cessna dealer. “Whatever he said, his word was as good as gold.”
Ken Stultz, president of Air Capital Jet Sales, said O’Neill was extremely intelligent and a fine aviator.
“He was making a very positive mark in the world of aviation,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate tragedy.”
Steve O’Neill is survived by his wife, Rhonda; four daughters, Erin, Elizabeth, Elaine and Maggie; three stepchildren, Megan, Jordan and Kathryn Reichenberger; his parents, John and Dorothy; and two sisters and six brothers.
Rick Voorhis spent the last 22 years of his life pursuing his passion for aviation.
Voorhis was born on March 25, 1953, at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. He got his first airplane ride when he was just 10 years old, which he described in an interview with Airport Journals in 2004.
“It was in a Cessna 180 back over Lake Champlain, on the border between Vermont and New York,” he recalled. “It was from one side of the lake to the other. I was kind of like the folks who take the introductory flight out here at the flight school. Everybody comes back with a great big grin, from ear to ear.”
He was raised in Denver, and graduated from Cherry Creek High School, and subsequently from the University of Denver, in 1975. He had nearly completed a master’s degree at the University of Colorado when he decided to head west, taking a job with the Piper Air Center in Long Beach, Calif., where he sold Piper aircraft for several years.
When that business shut down, Voorhis went into business for himself in 1985, opening the Van Nuys Flight Center, a successful FBO in the San Fernando Valley. Voorhis chose to keep selling Pipers until 1992, when the original Piper Aircraft went out of business, and then wisely picked up the Caravan territory from Cessna in 1994. He praised the Caravan’s reliability and versatility.
“It’s an exciting product that has really changed a lot,” he said in 2004.
For his efforts, he received several awards from Cessna and was their top salesperson in 2005, selling up to 10 percent of the company’s total production line of Caravans.
In addition to serving on boards of the National Air Transportation Association, the Van Nuys Airport Association and the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, Voorhis had a real commitment to the community of which he was a part. To support the Van Nuys community, he helped found the Van Nuys Propeller Aircraft Association, an advocacy organization to help promote the propeller aircraft community at the airport.
Elliot Sanders, currently president of the Van Nuys Propeller Aircraft Association, remembered Voorhis’ impressive stature and robust business style.
“Rick was a true-to-form advocate of the airport and a serious businessman,” Sanders said. “He was always true to himself and was an honest guy all the way down to the core. He was never afraid to give his opinion. I would always get from him a direct viewpoint that would help straighten out a problem or point the association in the right direction.”
Sanders also recalled Voorhis’ zest for life, which he shared over many memorable meals with the late pilot. Sanders, who shared Voorhis’ enthusiasm for good food and wine, had been planning a rib festival over Labor Day at Voorhis’ home.
“Rick was a person who really enjoyed life, much more than a lot of people,” Sanders said. “We would sit and talk about recipes until we were both salivating and then we would head off for lunch. He appeared to be this giant of a man who might beat the tar out of you in a business deal but he was really a warm, fun-loving guy and a true family man. I really admired him.”
In March 2004, Voorhis decided to sell his interests in the Van Nuys Flight Center to concentrate on Pacific Aircraft Sales, Inc., his Caravan dealership he had relocated to Reno, Nev. He also wanted to spend more time doing the things he enjoyed, including flying.
“It’s so nice to have the opportunity to work in aviation—so nice to do something that’s fun,” he said. “Because there are so many things out there you can do that aren’t so fun.”
Voorhis is survived by his wife, Marsha Voorhis; his son Nathan of Incline Village, N.V.; his mother, Helen Voorhis of Denver; his sisters, Ginny Holiday and Susan Voorhis; his brother-in-law, Rick Holliday; and his niece, Erin Holliday.
A memorial fund for Steve O’Neill has been established: Steven P. O’Neill Children’s Education Fund, c/o Bank of America, 7310 W. 21st St. N., Wichita, KS 67205 and Stepstone, c/o Sisters of St. Joseph Neighbors Ministries, 1329 Bluffview, Wichita, KS 67218. The family of Rick Voorhis requests that donations be made in Rick’s memory to either the Van Nuys Propeller Aircraft Association, 7335 Hayvenhurst Place, Van Nuys, CA 91406 or the Rick Voorhis Memorial Fund, University of Denver, School of Accounting, 2190 S. High St.,
Denver, CO 80208.