Bruce Jackson dies in plane crash

Australian sound engineer Bruce Jackson found fame as Elvis’s sound guy. He featured in my technical journal CX Magazine, and it was a shock when he went missing in his aircraft from Los Angeles in early 2011.

Despite being of 1978 vintage, the Mooney M20J airplane was in excellent order when it crashed without obvious reason. Stranger still was the location: six miles from Furnace Creek in Death Valley.

Aged sixty-one and in perfect health, the Australian-born audio engineer and inventor had spent the Christmas break in his apartment at Marina Del Ray, seaside in Los Angeles. He lived most of the year at Watson’s Bay in Sydney.

Each year Bruce, his wife Terri, and their daughter Brianna would leave Australia when school broke up to reconnect and stay in touch with American friends. Terri was from the US, and they met early in the 1990s when she was PA to Marty Erlichman, manager of Barbra Streisand. Bruce had been coaxed into doing sound for the notoriously difficult diva.

His plane crashed sometime after 2:30 p.m. local time. No one knew he was missing. No one knew he was there.

A whole day passed. Then on Monday morning at 8:30 a.m. a ranger drove along a dirt track on a ridge-line and by chance spotted the wreckage. It took several hours to hike through the dense brush and over volcanic rocks. They found a single-engine aircraft and the remains of the pilot. His wallet gave up a name.

Bruce had intended to return home to Sydney days earlier with Terri. He had been up to San Francisco to visit the head office of Dolby, for whom he worked in Sydney. But he had some business that required paperwork, which was delayed, so he stayed on a few days while the family went back to Sydney.

He had a couple of phone interviews with a journalist from Back Streets, a Bruce Springsteen fan site. Bruce Jackson had mixed for The Boss across his glory years, and famously had been Elvis’s sound guy before that. His aviation passion had started when he took the controls of the converted airliner that Elvis used to fly around in.

Late in the week, Bruce made a dinner date with Ernie Farhat, a realtor who had become a friend over the years. They were to meet that Saturday night.

Saturday, January 29, wasn’t as warm as it gets in LA in winter, but the minimum of 11 degrees Celsius was great for flying. Lower temperatures mean less turbulence. Bruce kept his Mooney at Santa Monica and flew it each time he was in town, at least three times each year.

With thousands of hours experience, and a personality that was rooted in perfectionism, Bruce was a flawless aviator with no incident history. Earlier in January he had flown the plane up to Santa Barbara to visit Dolby.

He decided on a whim to fly up to Furnace Creek, alone and without filing a flight plan. This wasn’t irresponsible by Bruce — it was little more than a quick hop. Nothing for a man of Bruce’s experience and competence at the controls.[G1] If you worked the rulebook out of Santa Monica, it was a flight you could do easily in less than two hours.

Private aviation in Los Angeles is an acquired taste. There are over one dozen airports, including three large commercial ones. It’s the most densely flown airspace in the world with the Sierra Nevada Mountains forming a barrier to the east that’s too high to fly over without oxygen.

Although Bruce had an instrument rating, he was out of time and would need a check flight if he were to fly on instrument rules. The weather was clear, so a flight under visual flight rules was easy.

He listened to the flight advisory on the radio, and then requested taxi clearance. When cleared to take off, he followed the assigned heading and climbed to 3,500 feet whereupon he was given a further clearance and a transponder code so that he could be tracked on radar.

Radar tracking ended fifty-five minutes later when the plane went through the mountain pass, and eventually he joined the circuit at Furnace Creek and landed 230 feet below sea level. Up there in winter it was cold, just over one degree Celsius that morning, but by midday it had reached ten degrees.

Bruce loved Furnace Creek and had spoken of building a house out there. He made two calls — one to Ernie to firm up the dinner that night, and his last call was to Terri at 2:15 p.m. local.

Everything was normal. He took off, raised the wheels, reduced the manifold pressure, adjusted the RPM, and retracted the ten degrees of take-off flaps needed to deal with the short runway. Someone saw him depart and turn to climb out of the valley. His plane passed out of sight, and the engine noise faded against the silent desert. Just three minutes later he was dead.

The next day Terri was worried, as was Bruce’s best friend and Dolby workmate, David McGrath. It was not like Bruce to disappear. Ernie had waited a while, and then dined alone on Saturday night. There was no one at the apartment to raise the alarm when Bruce didn’t arrive home.

There was no flight plan filed, and no SAR (search and rescue) time had been lodged. If a flight misses a SAR time, a caution period kicks in and several hours on, a search is planned. But no one searched, because the paperwork hadn’t been done — that quick hop, right?

Later Monday in Sydney, Terri was at work and in touch with David each hour. By Tuesday he had called everyone he could think of, including the NTSB — the National Transport Safety Bureau in the USA. They were polite but not forthcoming.

A Dolby HR person in the USA told David to have Terri notify the Santa Monica police that he was missing, because that was where he had departed. David and Terri were less certain, but the Dolby staffer called again an hour later and insisted it happen. They knew how the system worked — and not long after reporting Bruce missing, the police called Terri back and told her there had been a plane crash.

It seemed certain, but there was still a small degree of doubt. It quickly sunk away, leaving Terri alone at home. Bruce’s sister and brother-in-law, and then David and his wife, rushed over.

The cause of the accident remains a mystery. The world lost a major talent — a revered live sound engineer, the best of the best, and a prolific inventor with dozens of ground-breaking designs to his name.

Bruce crossed paths with me and countless others over the decades, and he always had time to stop, talk and listen. He affectionately called my magazine ‘libel pulp’.

Double Bruce, Jackson on the right.

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Julius Grafton

Julius Grafton

Sydney born 1950's male, slightly un-reconstructed. Lover of life, children and irony.