RACINE — Local pilot Bill Gensler lived to fly.
It was a passion for aviation that he passed on not only to his four sons, but to countless students during his more than 50 years as a pilot and flight instructor.
His death Saturday in a plane crash came as a shock to family members and friends on Sunday who remembered the 75-year-old Racine man as among the most skilled and experienced pilots they had ever known.
“He was such an icon when it came to flying here,” said longtime friend and former flying student Kevin Weslaski. “There was nobody who could touch his record for flying, no one.”
Gensler and another man died Saturday afternoon when the 1975 Piper Cherokee Gensler was flying crashed into Lake Michigan about one mile off the coast of Cudahy, the U.S. Coast Guard in Cleveland confirmed Sunday. The identity of the other man has not yet been released, but the Coast Guard has confirmed that Gensler and the other man were the only two people aboard the four-seater, single-engine plane when it went down.
The plane took off from Batten International Airport in Racine at about 2:30 p.m. on Saturday. Rescue crews were notified of a crash less than 30 minutes later.
On Sunday, word of the pilot’s passing spread quickly throughout the tight-knit aviation community at Batten. Gensler ran his flight instruction business — Gensler Aviation — out of the Batten terminal, and had been flying out of the airfield for more than 40 years, logging more than 40,000 flight hours during his career.
Given that level of experience, David Mann, general manager at Batten, said that most pilots who knew Gensler were dismayed to learn of the crash.
“It wasn’t as much shock as it was regret,” said Mann of the feelings among the pilots, adding that he heard many of them say, “‘I can’t believe this happened to him.’”
Bill Gensler’s son, Jeff Gensler, 48, of Deltona, Fla., said Sunday that he and his three brothers rarely worried about their father getting into an accident precisely because he was so experienced.
“He took care of himself really good,” Jeff Gensler said, adding that his father was always sure to stay healthy so he could pass the pilot physical. “He loved to fly. He loved his freedom,” he said.
Weslaski said Bill Gensler was so admired for his skill that would-be pilots would often come to Racine from as far away as Italy and Germany to take flying lessons from the man he referred to several times as“compassionate.”
“He just loved it. It was his whole life — nothing came ahead of flying,” Weslaski said. “I live right in the flight path off of Batten. Every time (my wife and I) heard an airplane we’d say, ‘Billy!’ And, you know, 50 percent of the time it was him.”