Mourners honor Tulare County sheriff’s pilot who died in plane crash

More than 1,000 people attended the funeral Saturday of James Chavez, a pilot for the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department whose law enforcement plane crashed Feb. 10 near Springville, killing him and sheriff’s Deputy Scott Ballantyne.

The light sport aircraft designed for law enforcement use caught fire after hitting the ground, but the cause of the crash remains under investigation.

Glad Tidings Church in Hanford, where the capacity is listed at 999 people, was filled to overflowing as mourners watched a procession of uniformed law enforcement and military.

At Armona Cemetery following the church service, military honors, including a gun volley, taps, bagpipes and a helicopter flyby, took place.

At the church, Sheriff Mike Boudreaux eulogized Mr. Chavez, 45, who is survived by his wife, Melissa “Missy” Chavez; a daughter, Jayleen, 10; and a son, Josiah, 6.

“James was a civilian pilot, but I’ve got to tell you, for the men and women of the department, he was a deputy sheriff,” Boudreaux said.

The fatal plane crash prompted hundreds of letters from the community and phone calls of concern and condolences from top elected officials statewide and law enforcement leaders, he said.

Boudreaux said Mr. Chavez would sometimes fly over his home.

“He would  tilt his wings and I would wave back,” he said. “I just thought it was the best thing ever.”

At a law enforcement conference in Washington, D.C., the attendees held a moment of silence in honor of Mr. Chavez and Deputy Ballantyne, and the same happened at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, he said.

Their names will be added to the Peace Officers Memorial in Visalia, he said.

Mr. Chavez was a safety-conscious pilot who helped officers on the ground.

“James did nothing but express his love for the job,” Boudreaux said. “He loved chasing bad guys.”

Mr. Chavez was born in Stockton and graduated from St. Mary’s High School. He graduated from California State University, Fresno, with a degree in geography.

He had played the violin since age 8 and performed with the Kings Symphony Orchestra for several seasons.

He served as an officer in both the Navy and Army.

In 1993, he was a maintenance officer on the USS Abraham Lincoln. But he wanted to be a pilot.

In 2005, he transferred to the Army National Guard and became a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, amassing more than 900 hours.

In 2010-11, he served as company commander for the 640th Aviation Support Battalion and flew Blackhawk missions.

Mr. Chavez, who attained the rank of major, earned a Bronze Star and combat badge.

His colleagues admired him, said Col. David Uyematsu.

“I loved his amazing personality,” Uyematsu said. “He would crack a joke now and then – it was a breath of fresh air.”

One of Mr. Chavez’s assignments was to lead a company of 250 soldiers to Iraq to provide aircraft maintenance support to 300 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

“He took a thankless job and did it well,” he said.

His quest to become a pilot took 10 years, Uyematsu said: “Man, that guy was persistent.”

Pastor Rick McCullough said Mr. Chavez was a blessing to others.

“He was humble in every way,” McCullough said. “He didn’t drop names or awards.”

Mr. Chavez was active in ministries at Glad Tidings and liked to help young people.

“I ran into some trouble when I was in high school,” Brittany Smith of Fresno said following the church service. “He actually spoke to me quite often and helped kind of get me back on track and helped kind of get my life straight  James was a very big part of making sure that I was straightened out and had my life straight. Now I’ve got a family and I’m going to school.”

He was sometimes a door greeter at church, said church member Emily Oliveira.

“He’d say, ‘Oh my day is complete now, I’ve met all of you’ – me, my mother-in-law, my niece,” she said. “He was always a good friend.”

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

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