Six World War II-era planes soared in the skies above Farmingdale Saturday before one broke away in tribute to a fallen pilot — remembered by friends and family as a respected aviator and skilled mechanic.
Bill Gordon, 56, of Key West, Florida, died Friday after he crashed his single-seat P-47 Thunderbolt — a fighter built in 1944 — in the Hudson River while attempting an emergency water landing.
The well-known stunt pilot had been scheduled to perform at the Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach this weekend, officials said.
“Bill lived and breathed aviation,” Scott Clyman, a board member of the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale, said after the planes flew past in a missing-man formation.
Friends and family mourned Gordon, who they said became a pilot on a whim in the 1980s, then worked to master his craft with a work ethic forged from growing up on an upstate dairy farm.
He later co-founded an aerobatic team that performed around the world.
When he wasn’t entertaining crowds with hair-raising midair stunts, Gordon loved to tinker with aircraft engines, sometimes fixing them for free for strangers, friends said.
Gordon, who has two grown children, previously worked in construction and owned a trucking company in Ancramdale, southeast of Albany. He married his second wife last year and shortly afterward, she died of cancer, his family said. He split his time between New York and Key West, where he worked a side business giving tourists airplane rides, said his stepbrother, Fred Schneeberger, 57, of Ancramdale.
“He had a very good business sense. He could juggle the airplanes, the trucks, the help,” Schneeberger said. “That came from . . . working on the farm.”
Gordon’s former partner, Billy Segalla, 55, of Canaan, Connecticut, recalled when Gordon told him about 30 years ago he wanted to learn to fly because a friend had bet him $100 he couldn’t get a pilot’s license.
A year later, Gordon got the license, and Segalla learned to trust him dearly.
The two founded the Iron Eagle Aerobatic Team 25 years ago. They practiced choreographed routines to music for two years before making their debut at a New York show. The duo flew high-powered biplanes in air shows across the country and around the world.
“He would practice consistently every single night. He was just a very determined person and a very determined pilot,” Segalla said.
Gordon often studied the planes he’d fly, becoming an expert on a number of aircraft. At shows, he sometimes fixed planes belonging to strangers, telling them to repay him by flying safely, Segalla said.
A crash in 2009 didn’t deter Gordon.
After the engine of his biplane failed shortly after takeoff at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodome, an aviation museum in upstate Red Hook, he crash-landed in a wooded area. Gordon walked away unscathed, but the plane’s wings collapsed.
Despite the close call, he jumped right back into the cockpit, Schneeberger said.
“We’re farm boys. You fall off the horse, you brush the dust off and you climb back on them,” he said.
Schneeberger added, “He always told me ‘I’d rather leave a smoking hole doing what I love than die of cancer in a hospital.’ ”
Segall retired about two years ago but he said Gordon kept performing on his own.
“When air shows get in your blood, it’s tough to get it out — the adrenaline rush,” Segalla said.
Clyman said Gordon “did everything right” in attempting the Hudson water landing.
“When he realized he was facing a potential catastrophic situation, he quickly got the aircraft down in the safest place possible, away from any structures and population,” said Clyman, a pilot.
Catherine Donnelly, 63, of Long Beach, said she befriended Gordon at the Bethpage Air Show two years ago, getting him to autograph her program.
“He was one of the greats,” she said Saturday at the museum. “He did things up there other pilots couldn’t do.”