Herald JournalHerald Journal, July 21, 2003

Pastor injured, instructor killed in plane crash

By Ryan Gueningsman
Staff Writer

Pastor Joel Swedberg, 48, of Howard Lake was critically injured, and his flight instructor killed, following an airplane crash in a field just east of the Winsted Airport Wednesday at 3:19 p.m.

Swedberg's instructor was James G. Robillard, 66, of Minnetonka.

Both men were experienced pilots; although it has not been officially confirmed who was piloting the craft.

Swedberg's condition at Hennepin County Medical Center was upgraded from critical to serious condition as of Friday.

The plane the two were flying in was Swedberg's two-person Taylor-made craft which he had purchased from a man in Texas about a year ago.

En route back to Minnesota, the plane apparently struck a bird, said St. John's Lutheran Church representative Neil Sideen. Fellow pilots at the airport said that Swedberg had recently done some refurbishing to the plane, and that it had been modified for aerobatics.

"He does a lot of stunts," said Sideen. "He'll do the upside down and loop-the-loop ­ something you wouldn't expect from a pastor."

Swedberg has been the pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church of Howard Lake since 1991. He is married to Marylou, and they have two sons, Derek, 18, and Luke 10.

Swedberg is originally from the Illinois area. His father was also a pastor, Sideen said.

Last year, he celebrated his 20th anniversary of his ordination.

Despite Swedberg's accident, church services continued this weekend as scheduled.

This is not the first major accident Swedberg has been in. In late December 1992, he was in a serious automobile crash in which he was also injured. He was in the hospital for close to four months, and returned to the pulpit for the first time Easter Sunday of 1993.

"His injuries were a lot worse that time," said St. John's church secretary Nancy Hovlid. "We know, through the grace of God, he's going to pull through this just like he did last time."

"We really appreciate the support from the community and also the other area clergy," said Hovlid. "Other clergy have offered their services, and this is a community that is amazing at pulling together."

Swedberg was looking forward to taking an airplane ride Wednesday afternoon. He had not flown in about five months, and wanted to have an instructor with "to make sure he was doing the right stuff at the right time," Hovlid said.

What happened

At the time of the crash, David Millerbernd of Winsted was at the Winsted Airport on the taxiway Wednesday afternoon cleaning his own aircraft when he noticed an airplane attempting take off.

"He was taking off towards the east," Millerbernd said. "He was halfway down the runway, and it caught my ear when the engine sputtered.

"It started up again for about five seconds, sputtered again, and started again." By this time, the plane had reached an altitude of about 200 feet, Millerbernd figured. The plane eventually banked to the left and started to go towards the ground at a 45-degree angle.

"It leveled out, smacked the ground, and flipped upside down," Millerbernd said. He immediately called 911, grabbed a knife he keeps in his hangar, got in his vehicle, and drove to the crash site to attempt to free the two passengers from the aircraft.

"I could tell they were hurt," he said. "I tried to talk to them, but both were unconscious."

One man was pinned into the plane, and one man was halfway out of the plane, he said. They both had bad facial lacerations, and it appeared one had back injuries.

Several minutes later local police and fire department personnel arrived and extricated the pair.

They were both taken by ambulance to Ridgeview Hospital in Waconia, and then airlifted to Hennepin County Medical Center.

Robillard died Wednesday evening at HCMC from injuries sustained in the crash.

He was a former junior high shop teacher in the Hopkins School District, and currently giving flying lessons through Crystal-based Skyways.

Remembering Robillard

Robillard was working out of the Crystal Airport as a flight instructor, said neighbor Doug Fiebelkorn. He had learned to fly in the Navy.

Robillard and his wife Jorun have three children ­ Dan, Mark, and Tracy Kruse.

"Jorun is still in shock," Fiebelkorn told the Herald Journal Thursday. "Tracy came running over and said 'Doug, we need your help.'"

Fiebelkorn gave several family members a ride to HCMC. While on the way, Jorun mentioned that she knew her husband was going to Winsted for a lesson with the minister.

Fiebelkorn was on his way back home between 5 and 5:30 p.m., arrived home, and got a call from Mark, who said his "dad didn't make it."

Robillard has been flying planes for at least 30 years. He began giving flight lessons upon retiring from his job eight to 10 years ago, Fiebelkorn said.

This is the third airplane that Robillard has owned. He also enjoyed flying his remote control airplane, and also went skydiving with his wife for her birthday.

Robillard also has a complete woodworking shop in his yard, in which he has made furniture, a hat rack stand, and had plans to build a glider chair with Fiebelkorn.

"I always told him that he could dang near do anything." Fiebelkorn said. "He loved flying, was very meticulous, and just a super-nice guy."

There was visitation Sunday at Washburn-McReavy Chapel, and funeral services will be Monday at Ascension Lutheran Church in St. Louis Park at 6 p.m.

Other crashes in McLeod County

This is the first plane crash in McLeod County in three years, said McLeod County Chief Deputy Mark Taylor.

There was one other crash in the county in 2000, Taylor said. One person lost his life when his plane crashed on 90th Street, north of Brownton.

There was also one in Brownton in 1987, following the Minnesota Twins World Series game, in which four people lost their lives while en route back to Nebraska.

The Winsted Police and Fire Departments, Lester Prairie Police Department, Minnesota State Patrol, and McLeod County Sheriff's Department all assisted with the crash Wednesday.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also responded from Minneapolis to investigate the crash.

"We're going to rely on the FAA's expertise as far as determining the cause of the crash," Taylor said.

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