Friends of a Center Grove area pilot know that when his plane landed in a backyard, narrowly avoiding destroying two homes, it wasn’t an accident.
Bill Gilliland was both a skilled pilot and a conscientious man.
His friend Rob Richardson, a former pilot, said he knows without hesitation that, when Gilliland knew the airplane was going to crash, he tried to protect the people on the ground.
“I’m sure that’s why he ended up in a backyard, and I’m sure that’s why he didn’t hit any houses. That wasn’t happenstance. That was a skilled pilot making sure that no one else got hurt,” he said.
Gilliland’s 1991 Mooney aircraft crashed within minutes of taking off from Greenwood Municipal Airport, landing in a neighborhood less than a quarter-mile away. His plane skimmed a house, knocked off a patio awning and crashed in a tiny backyard, where it caught fire. The crash did not hurt any residents and didn’t cause heavy damage to any of the homes in the Lakeview neighborhood. Gilliland died from injuries from the crash, according to the county coroner’s office. His co-pilot, Michael Elliott, was taken to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis and has been listed in critical condition.
A neighbor, bystanders and emergency workers attempted to save both men but were only able to get Elliott out of the aircraft alive.
“The many acts of heroism that surround the rescue of his co-pilot and attempted rescue of Bill were all sacrificial in nature and mere words cannot express the gratitude our family feels for your actions,” Gilliland’s wife, Angie, said in a statement.
Gilliland’s care for the people in the homes, businesses and apartments in the area where he crashed was a natural part of who he was, Richardson said.
“He was a very selfless guy. Never were you in a conversation with Bill was the conversation ever about Bill,” he said.
Gilliland’s selflessness showed in the ways he helped start his church’s school, the gentle voice he used to talk to his wife and daughters and his ability to make his friends feel valued, Richardson said.
Richardson and Gilliland became friends about 10 years ago. They attended SS. Francis & Clare Roman Catholic Church and worked with the church to start its private school eight years ago. Richardson now works for the school, handling business responsibilities, such as budgeting, contracts and fundraising. Gilliland’s daughters Grace, 14, and Sophie, 12, attend the school.
Gilliland was an engineer and volunteered not only to help plan where the school’s Internet and phone cables should go but also built the email server for free. He organized volunteers to install the cables and outlets then spent nights and weekends stringing Internet and phone wires in the classrooms. He also helped plan what computers and iPads to buy for the students, offered suggestions for educational apps and willingly helped if the school needed other technology aid, Richardson said.
“He was very precise and exacting. You always knew that when he said he would do something, it would be done, and it would be done perfectly,” friend David Wolf said.
Wolf, another SS. Francis & Clare church member, has a son who is the same age as Gilliland’s daughter Grace. The children were part of the first class at SS. Francis & Clare Catholic School, and the two men have known each other for about 20 years.
Making the school successful was important to Gilliland, and he wanted his daughters to have a Christian education to help form their values at a young age, Wolf said.
Gilliland was committed to their church, attending Mass every Sunday and never missing events, such as an annual chili cook-off, Wolf said. He was generous with his money, time and talent, but few people knew the extent of what he did because he was so humble, Wolf said.
When the parish members gathered to stand around the future site of their school, Gilliland donated his time and the cost of flying a photographer overhead to take pictures.
Gilliland tended to be the smartest person at school board meetings or other gatherings but wasn’t egotistical, Richardson said. Instead, he was thoughtful and used his knowledge to help, he said.
“If we were in a board meeting and we were talking about something, when Bill would chime in, when Bill would speak, everyone would listen because they knew whatever Bill was saying was going to be important,” Richardson said.
Their families spent time skiing together in Michigan in December, saw each other about once a week and also talked on the phone throughout the week. They would meet for breakfast or dinner, talk about their mutual love for flying and work on church and school projects together, Richardson said. In friendship, Gilliland made it clear that he valued their time together, he said.
“It was never about him. It was always about everybody else. He was just a giving, thoughtful, creative type of person, who always made other people feel important and always made other people feel valued,” Richardson said.
Richardson didn’t know until after he died that Gilliland was a vice president for Simon Property Group.
“I didn’t know his title. He didn’t care,” Richardson said. “It wasn’t important to him who he was at Simon Property Group. It was important to him who he was as a friend, as a father, as a husband.”
The friends flew together just two weeks before Gilliland was killed in the crash.
As usual, Gilliland followed his routine preflight checklist meticulously, looking at fuses and gauges, checking the oil and making sure no water was in the fuel. No one else was near the hangar besides Richardson, who was in the aircraft at the time. Still, Gilliland did what the checklist said to do to warn people to stay away from the plane propeller as the engine starts.
He opened the plane window and yelled “Clear!”
“He was a great pilot. And because that’s what great pilots do, he followed the checklist,” Richardson said.