John Walton, 58, a multi-billionaire and heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, died Monday afternoon when the small aircraft he was flying crashed in a field of sagebrush in Grand Teton National Park, in Wyoming, shortly after takeoff from Jackson Hole Airport. He was alone in the aircraft. A witness told park rangers that the aircraft circled, then dived steeply to the ground. The location was in line with an approach for landing. Investigator Aaron Sauer from the NTSB regional office in Denver was dispatched to the scene on Tuesday, and he determined that the aircraft was a CGS Hawk Arrow, an experimental, kitbuilt airplane. "Consequently, the NTSB will conduct a typical field investigation of this accident," the NTSB said. Early reports had identified the aircraft as an ultralight, and said only the National Park Service would investigate. Yesterday, The Jackson Hole News reported that Walton had recently bought the aircraft in Virginia, and set out to fly it cross-country to Wyoming. Along the way, the landing gear was damaged in a hard landing, and Walton hauled the Hawk home on a trailer. The flight on Monday was said to be the first following repairs to the aircraft.
Dr. Brent Blue, an aviation medical examiner in Jackson Hole, told AVweb yesterday that Walton was "a very experienced and a very careful pilot. He was current in his Citation and flew it regularly. He was a crop-duster earlier in his life in California ... Truly a great guy. He will be missed by his friends in this community." Forbes Magazine listed Walton in March as the 11th richest man in the world, with a net worth of $18.2 billion. He sat on the board of directors of the Wal-Mart corporation, and was an active board member of the Walton Family Foundation. Walton served in the U.S. Army Green Berets as a medic during the Vietnam War, and was awarded the Silver Star. He leaves a wife and son.