Capt. Michael Trubilla was, quite literally, a rocket scientist, who also flew Air Force RC-135 jets in far corners of the world.
But it was orphans in Haiti who changed his life. During a weeklong missionary trip last summer, he became a godfather to a dying little girl named Isabel Elizabeth.
“Michael rocked babies, changed diapers, scraped cribs, moved rocks, held the hands of the dying, and never once complained,” said his friend, Katie Garrett of Omaha, who traveled with him. “His faith came alive and radiated out for all of us to see.”
Trubilla, 27, died Sunday afternoon when the twin-engine Beechcraft Baron aircraft he was piloting on a check ride with an FAA instructor plunged into a soybean field near Leshara, west of Omaha. The flight instructor — Ron Panting, 61, of Papillion — also was killed.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are now on the scene, examining the wreckage of the aircraft and its engines, said Terry Williams, an NTSB spokesman. A preliminary report is expected in about a week.
Trubilla grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, one of four sons of an Air Force veteran.
He was selected for an appointment to the Air Force Academy, where he made a giant splash with an undergraduate research project creating a fuel system to propel certain types of small satellites.
NASA had been unable to use the satellites after Russia cut off shipments of the plutonium that fueled them. Trubilla’s new fuel system allowed them to run on an alternate fuel, rescuing the space agency’s $50 million investment in the satellites. Trubilla received a major Air Force science and technology award for his work.
“It’s the best piece of research I’ve ever seen a cadet do,” Ken Siegenthaler, one of his professors, said at the time.
He graduated in 2011, and following training to fly RC-135 jets was assigned as a pilot with Offutt’s 45th Reconnaissance Squadron in May 2013.
Rebecca Weber, 32, of Omaha met him through an Air Force neighbor, and they became close friends between his frequent overseas deployments.
She remembers his lively personality and wacky sense of humor. On Halloween, he dressed as “Rich Uncle Pennybags,” the wealthy tycoon pictured in the Monopoly board game, and handed out play money.
“He just couldn’t sit still,” she said. “He was always doing something, taking his car apart and putting it together.”
Weber said he was famous for his long and entertaining stories, but he would listen and offer sound advice for friends who needed it.
“When you had a problem, he was the friend you called or texted,” she said.
Weber said Trubilla was a devout Roman Catholic. She remembered how the Haiti trip affected him.
“It bothered him that there were little kids who were so sick, and there was no one to hold them,” Weber said.
She didn’t see Trubilla last weekend. He was supposed to come to her birthday party Saturday, but he didn’t make it because of a flat tire. He told her he would meet her the next day, after his check flight.
“He said, ‘I’m OK,’ ” Weber recalled. “That’s the last I heard from him.”
Trubilla’s family hasn’t announced services yet. His squadron is planning a private memorial ceremony in his memory, a 55th Wing spokeswoman said.
Papillion man ‘was living the dream’ when around planes
If anyone lived for flying, it was Ronald Panting.
The 61-year-old flight instructor from Papillion had held a pilot’s license for 40 years, including a 23-year career in the Air Force and nine more years as a commercial pilot.
“He has just been obsessed with flying his whole life,” said his daughter, Stephanie Panting. “It was really wonderful to see him doing what he was passionate about.”
Ron Panting grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, but his Air Force career took him around the world. His last stop was with the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base in 1998, including a tour as chief of wing safety. He stayed in Nebraska with his wife, Lynne, and two children after retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2004.
In recent years, he flew as a contractor for the Army Corps of Engineers and served as a check airman for the FAA.
Panting enjoyed golf and umpired high school and college baseball games. But when he wasn’t flying airplanes, he could often be found tinkering on home and vehicle projects.
“He loved seeing how things worked, he loved working with his hands,” Stephanie Panting said. “When he was around planes, it was something special. He was living the dream.”
Panting is survived by his wife, Lynne, of Papillion; daughter Stephanie of Washington, D.C.; and son Matthew of southern California. Services are pending.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1186, email@example.com