A young warbird pilot who inspired others was among four people killed in two separate accidents involving three aircraft on July 29, the final Saturday of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2023 in Wisconsin.
In the first of the two accidents, just after 9 a.m., first responders including the U.S. Coast Guard and local firefighters responded after multiple witnesses reported an aircraft down in Lake Winnebago. Rescue crews determined that the pilot, Devyn Reiley, 30, and her passenger, Zach Collie Moreno, 20, were deceased, and began work to recover the North American T–6 Texan that went into the water near Wittman Regional Airport.
The NTSB will investigate both accidents. EAA noted in the press release that aircraft operations were halted during the initial investigation of the second accident, and the afternoon airshow began at 2:45 p.m., "after a short delay."
Family and friends of those involved were shocked, including many friends of Reiley, who built a following on social media with the Instagram account "@spirit.of.fifinella," a reference to a mythical character conceived by author Roald Dahl that was adopted as the mascot of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II, whose legacy Reiley was carrying forward.
“How do you even start with Devyn,” asked longtime friend and fellow warbird pilot Kelly Mahon. “The first thing that comes to mind is how she always took care of others before taking care of herself. Whether she was driving the tug and supporting her husband, Hunter, or wiping down windscreens, she did it all. She loved to fly, but she also loved helping everyone else.
“She was a great pilot and many of us that flew with her have the same story,” said Mahon. “She’d pick things up so fast and she was very conservative, she didn’t go out and mess around. She was always happy to have me as a wingman, no matter what I showed up in. She loved me, and I thought I was special. But, nope, she just loved everyone.”
Reiley, the daughter of two-time Super Bowl champion Bruce Collie and his wife, Holly, earned her private pilot certificate in 2017 and went on to earn her instrument rating in December of 2020. At the time of her death, she was preparing for her commercial checkride.
“Devyn had a passion for aviation and warbirds that was just infectious,” said aviation videographer and friend Erik Johnston. “She always jumped at any opportunity to share her passion with others.”
Volz, the helicopter passenger, is survived by members of five generations of his family, including his mother, siblings, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren born in December, said his wife of 52 years, Patty Volz, in a phone conversation August 3. She said her husband had rushed to complete a series of projects around their Ohio home before leaving for AirVenture. He had spent the preceding year in Florida, finishing a helicopter build that had been his goal for 20 years. After a month back at home, Volz headed to Oshkosh with his grandson, Hayden, both men volunteering to help in the helicopter loading area at the show, his prized helicopter left behind for another day.
"It's just unbelievable," Patty Volz said. A U.S. Air Force veteran known variously to his family as "Sarge in charge" or "Babbie," Volz survived a four-year battle with Leukemia to emerge with the disease in remission about two years ago, at which point he decided it was time to complete the build. Friends offered hangar space at Cannon Creek Airpark in Florida, where Volz spent about a year working to finish his helicopter, and then train to proficiency flying it, while helping friends with their own projects. Patty Volz said her husband was "incredibly kind and helpful," and "meticulous," particularly when it came to aircraft.
"I've gotten more emails and texts… he absolutely always helped people," Patty Volz said. "People all over the world have mentioned that."
When Patty Volz learned her husband planned to cap his AirVenture experience with a helicopter ride, her first question was who would be flying that helicopter with her husband aboard. When she heard it would be Peterson, a CFI well-known in the experimental helicopter community, "I said, 'I have no fear, then.' He was good … very professional," said Patty Volz, who knew Peterson personally. She said she trusted Peterson in part because he had thousands of hours flying and instructing in helicopters. "I didn't know him like Tom did, but [I] met him at several meets."
Peterson, who advertised flight instruction and builder assistance services online, told the Lakeland Ledger in 2010 that he loved to fly helicopters for the same reason as most helicopter pilots: "We just want to fly helicopters and we don't know why."
Peterson originally operated from Florida, and moved to Alabama in 2006, according to his website. Efforts to reach his friends and family were not successful.
Like Volz, Reiley loved sharing her passion for aviation. The day before the accident, Johnston and Reiley filmed a walkaround video of her family’s T–6 for Johnston’s popular YouTube channel. According to Johnston, Reiley’s father-in-law, Jeremy Reiley, asked for the video to be published as a way for her to be remembered.
Moreno, Reiley's passenger and a member of the Commemorative Air Force Central Texas Wing, was an aspiring A&P mechanic who "had a tough go for most of his life but found a love for aviation," the group wrote in a Facebook post. "He loved everything warbird related and was just getting started on his journey in aviation and in life. Zach also loved, and had a talent for, photography. Many of the photos published by our Wing in the last year were Zach’s work."
Johnston spent the night before the accident with the Reiley family, where he also met Moreno.
“Zach was a big follower of my YouTube channel, and we had fun getting to know each other and talking airplanes. Zach had a wholesomeness about him that made him so easy to talk to.”
Aside from being a pilot’s pilot, Reiley was a devout wife, daughter, sibling, and Christian. If you were looking for Reiley, she was always easy to spot, standing by her husband’s side.
The couple were married in 2020 in a grand celebration of love and aviation. The wedding was also carefully planned to be held at the same time as AirVenture, so they could celebrate their anniversary year after year with friends and family during the show.
Aside from Reiley’s intense passion for warbirds and family, she was also passionate about preserving and sharing the history of the WASP.
“I believe the first time I met Devyn was at the 2022 WASP Homecoming at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas,” recalled friend and fellow pilot Jan Johnson. “With her effervescent sparkling eyes, big Texan smile, and giggly laugh, I knew we were destined to be friends.
“I shared every success Devyn achieved,” Johnson continued. “When she soloed the family’s BT-13 at the 2022 WASP Homecoming, we were all overjoyed. WASP Shirley Kruse was there to congratulate her. [It] was a very special moment—like the torch had been passed.”
A year later, in May, Reiley soloed her family’s T–6 Texan. “I had a great time hearing of Devyn’s progress in the family’s AT-6,” said Johnson. “Devyn was on track to become one of the next pilots for the National WASP WWII Museum’s BT-13 and their AT-6, Nella. Devyn had a unique charm and spirit that enraptured anyone she met,” said Johnson. “Her passion and devotion for her family, flying warbirds, and embodying the 'Spirit of Fifinella' was unrivaled.”
A GoFundMe has been started to help cover Reiley’s funeral and memorial expenses, and a scholarship fund in Reiley’s name is also being planned.
—Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore contributed to this report.