PORTLAND – Tucked into a corner of Tom Casagrande’s basement, surrounded by models and photographs of the scores of airplanes he adored, the helmets he wore, the technical manuals he memorized, even the ejection seat from an OV-1 Mohawk in which he once sat, is a simple sign.

“I Love Airplane Noise,” it says.

Talk about an understatement. From the moment he first got into a cockpit as a middle schooler in Pennsylvania until his tragic death in Saturday’s crash of an Aerostar Yak-52 two-seater just outside the Portland International Jetport, Tom Casagrande, 66, didn’t just love airplane noise.

He lived for it.

“From the smell to the feel to the conversation, this was his comfort zone,” said Steve Casagrande, one of Tom’s five children. “These aren’t just pictures of airplanes he liked. This is stuff he flew.”

It will be months before investigators issue their final report on why the former Romanian Air Force plane, piloted by owner Mark Haskell of Brunswick with Casagrande in the rear cockpit, failed to gain altitude on takeoff and banked sharply back toward the airport runway before crashing onto Western Avenue in South Portland.

But as they sat in their father’s one-man aviation museum Monday afternoon, sons Steve, 37, and Matt, 23, and daughter Tracy Clancy, 39, already were certain of two things:

First, the crash must have been rooted in mechanical malfunction, not pilot (or co-pilot) error.

And second, the fact that no one on the ground was injured wasn’t just a matter of chance.

“He would have been calm, cool and collected,” said Matt, a newly commissioned ensign in the Navy who soon will begin training to become a military pilot — just like his father once was. “He would have been doing everything he could to take control of the situation,”

Chances are, you never heard of Tom Casagrande before his name flashed on news bulletins throughout New England over the weekend. He was, after all, a guy who managed to climb to the highest levels of aviation while keeping his many accomplishments, as Tracy so aptly put it, “below the radar.”

But make no mistake about it. In aviation circles, Tom Casagrande was an icon.

All told, he spent 13,000 hours in the air.

He was proficient at the controls of not a dozen, not 50, not 75 different aircraft, but an ear-popping 190.

And in his two tours flying everything from rescue helicopters to fixed-wing reconnaissance planes in the Vietnam War, he earned no fewer than 66 medals — something not even his children knew before they began compiling material for his obituary Monday morning.

The son of a World War II Army paratrooper who landed at Normandy on D-Day, Tom got the flying bug when he was growing up in Hazleton, Pa., and Uncle Carl took him up one day to inspect a row of power lines.

The next thing his elders knew, Tom was taking the single-engine Piper Vagabond, co-owned by his father and uncle, up by himself. Without a license. And without permission.

“The kids at his middle school didn’t believe him when he told them he could fly,” Steve said with a chuckle. “So he’d take it up, fly over the school, fly back, park it and then blame (the drop in the fuel gauge) on his Uncle Carl.”

At 15, while his peers were busy learning to drive cars, Tom already had his pilot’s license.

By 21, 13 days after he enlisted in the Army and completed flight school, he was on his way to fly choppers in Vietnam.

And by 27, after finishing his second tour, he’d been shot down three times and come into contact with enough of the defoliant Agent Orange to be 100 percent disabled later in life, with numbness in his legs, diabetes and problems with his eyes.

“But he never blamed his country — ever,” said Steve.

Oh? Then whom did he blame?

“Nobody,” he replied. “He volunteered.”

Tom, you see, never stopped loving his country and its military, both of which he proudly called “the best in the world.”

Even after leaving the Army in 1970, he worked for 20 years as a civilian test pilot for the Department of Defense. One day, he’d be at the controls of an Apache helicopter, devising air-combat tactics; the next, he’d be flying a captured Soviet MiG fighter, looking for the flaws in his own strategies.

His five kids by two marriages came to know his passion early.

“We were 6 weeks old when he’d first take us up,” said Tracy.

Ditto for his grandchildren. Tracy’s son Aiden, 10, has an aviation museum of his own in the works in his bedroom back in Birmingham, Ala.

If all had gone according to plan, he’d have taken his first open-cockpit biplane flight with his grandfather during his family’s previously scheduled trip to Maine this week.

“Back when Aiden was only 5, Dad wouldn’t send him Dr. Seuss books,” Tracy said. “He’d send ‘The Basics of Flying.’ It was hysterical.”

It also worked. Aiden had just turned 8 on the day he went up with Grandpa and, just like that, suddenly found himself banking left, then right, then left

“I got to handle the controls. It was amazing,” he said, still struggling to comprehend the fact that his “hero” is gone.

They all are struggling. But even as they grieve, Tom’s family takes comfort in their certainty that he (and, they stress, his friend and companion Haskell), knew exactly what he was doing right up until the end. And that he was doing what he loved.

Matt, who helped buckle his father in on Saturday and then watched as he and Haskell took off on what was a recertification flight for Haskell, said his father’s skill as a pilot was equaled only by his safety consciousness.

In any tight spot, Matt said, “there’s nobody else you’d want more to be with.”

And while there probably was nothing the two men could have done to avoid crashing — investigators said Monday that the plane’s propeller was no longer rotating when the plane hit the ground — Tom’s family and friends find some comfort knowing that he was pursuing his passion to the end.

“This is how Dad would have wanted to die,” said Tracy. “It’s what he found peace in.”

When Steve was about 7, he had a gerbil named Evel KaGerbel. One day, Steve came home from school to find his somber-faced father waiting by the door.

“Your gerbil died,” Tom gently told his son.

Steve was devastated. Tom, good father that he was, tried his best to cushion the blow.

“I’m sure he’s in heaven,” Tom told him.

“But where’s heaven?” asked Steve.

“Come with me,” said Tom.

They drove out to the airfield and climbed into “a little tail-dragger,” recalled Steve. Up, up, up they went, as they so often did, far above life as most of us know it.

Finally leveling off, Tom slowed the plane, leaned over and opened Steve’s window.

“Stick your hand out there,” he said.

Steve held his hand out and felt the cool air rushing by.

“Feel that?” asked Tom.

The boy nodded at his father. Tom smiled back at his son.

“That’s heaven,” he said. 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]