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Tragedy halts Nebraska STOL event

Pilot killed after apparent stall-spin from 400 feet

Editor's note: This story was updated May 21 and May 23 to clarify information.

Organizers, participating pilots, and spectators gathered at a Nebraska airport anticipating a four-day weekend of competitive displays of pilot skill instead confronted a grim reality on May 20: Mistakes made during routine maneuvers in an airplane can bring awful consequences.

Spectators gather to pray after watching competitor Tom Dafoe die in an apparent stall-spin crash at the MayDay STOL event in Nebraska May 20. Photo by David Tulis.

A Cessna 140 flown by California pilot Tom Dafoe was taking part in a traditional short takeoff and landing heat on the second day of the MayDay STOL 2022 at Wayne Municipal Airport/Stan Morris Field in Wayne, Nebraska. The event had been planned to include four days of precision aviation competition.

Winds were too strong on May 20 to run the STOL Drag heats, a hybrid test of speed and precision measured by time and combined takeoff and landing distance. Dafoe and other pilots took part in pickup heats of traditional STOL competition, where combined takeoff and landing distance is all that is measured. Those heats were not on the schedule.

California pilot Tom Dafoe prepares to launch his 1946 Cessna 140 during the MayDay STOL event May 20. Dafoe died in an apparent stall-spin accident minutes later. Photo by David Tulis.

During the fourth heat, Dafoe's Cessna rolled and dove during or soon after the base-to-final turn, and struck the ground in view of shocked spectators.

AOPA, among the event's sponsors, learned additional details from staff on location and other witnesses, as well as organizers at the event. Pilots who witnessed the accident sequence estimated that it began about 400 feet above the ground, an altitude at which recovery would have been impossible.

The emergency response was immediate, and all other activity on the airfield stopped in the moments following the accident at around 6:50 p.m. local time. 

As people on the field gathered in small groups for prayer and comfort, organizers posted an alert on the event website 23 minutes later:

"Due to an onsite incident at KLCG, Wayne Municipal Airport, all events have been canceled. More information will follow."

Spectators and event staff were devastated after watching a fatal crash May 20 during the second day of a planned four-day MayDay STOL event. Photo by David Tulis.

AOPA President Mark Baker extended the association's sympathy to Dafoe's family, and to others affected by the tragedy.

"We are heartbroken that we lost a member of the general aviation community, and our thoughts are with the family and friends of the pilot," Baker said. "Law enforcement and NTSB officials are handling the on-scene investigation. We will continue to support the community as needed."

Eyewitnesses were shocked and speechless following the May 20 crash. All activity on the airfield stopped, other than the rescue effort. Photo by David Tulis.
David Tulis
David Tulis
Senior Photographer
Senior Photographer David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings and a tailwheel endorsement. He is also a certificated remote pilot and co-host of the award-wining AOPA Hangar Talk podcast. David enjoys vintage aircraft and photography.

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