PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. -- Almost 60 years ago, David Flatter volunteered for Air Force flight school after learning how much better paid officers were than enlisted men.
From that beginning, the Lighthouse Point resident went on to fly everything from fighter planes, bombers and commercial jets to one-engine Cessnas, racking up many thousands of hours in the cockpit.
"His experience was beyond anyone's imagination," said friend and fellow pilot Tom Towle. "He had an amazing career."
That career ended Saturday when the small Thorp T-18 experimental aircraft Flatter was flying went down in a sugar cane field near the Pahokee Airport in Palm Beach County. His body was found in the plane's wreckage early Sunday near the 3800 block of State Road 715, according to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.
Flatter was 80.
"The last thing I ever would have expected to kill my father was a plane crash," said Steve Flatter, the pilot's son. "One of two things had to happen: a health issue or catastrophic failure."
He said his father, who flew for Pan Am for 26 years until the airline went out of business in 1991, was headed for a Lakeland fly-in. There, he planned to have lunch with friends, talk about aviation, and then fly home for dinner.
After taking off from Pompano Beach Airpark, his last communication with the Miami control tower was at 1:16 p.m. Saturday, Steve Flatter said, adding that his father's body was found in the upside-down fuselage of the plane, but that the wings and the engine of the two-seater plane were missing.
Flatter bought the Thorp T-18 about two years ago and had flown it between South Florida and Montana, his son said. The plane was built in 1980.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board will determine the cause of the crash.
Flatter was a part-time resident of Kalispell, Mont. There he met Towle and other retired pilots and took up flying small places for fun. He owned a Cessna 182 in addition to two Thorp planes, his son said.
While commercial pilots are forced to retire at 65, there is no maximum age for flying private aircraft, as long as the pilots can pass regular medical exams and skills tests. Retesting periods vary according to the type of license.
Among about 617,000 active pilot certificates, about 4,817 are held by people age 80 or older, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That is double the number flying a decade ago. About one third of those have licenses that allow them to charge for their services.
Flatter "was a consummate pilot, and he never took chances," said his son, who lives in Houston. "It was a part of his lifestyle, and he had no intention of giving it up. In fact, he had just bought another experimental plane."
A few years ago, Flatter and his wife, Juanita, flew from Montana to Alaska. Towle, 73, piloting his own Cessna, made that journey, too.
"He knew everybody out in Kalispell, and people in the valley there are shocked at this news," said Towle. "He was a magnificent person in every way."
Born in Wausau, Wis., Flatter joined the National Guard and then the Air Force. Among the aircraft he flew as an Air Force captain, according to Towle, were the F-86 Sabre, a fighter jet, the Boeing B-50 Superfortress strategic bomber, and the Boeing Model 450 B-47 Stratojet, a long-range, six-engined bomber.
In addition to his wife, Juanita, and son, Steve, Flatter leaves a daughter, Vicki, and grandson, Michael, who is a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Funeral services are pending.
Staff writer Diane Lade and researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.