A University of Colorado engineering graduate was among those killed off the coast of San Diego last week in a mid-air collision between a Coast Guard aircraft and Marine Corps helicopter.
Tom Claiborne, 26, of Parker, graduated from CU in May 2006 with a degree in aerospace engineering and was commissioned as a pilot in the Marine Corps. On Thursday night, 1st Lt. Claiborne and another pilot were conducting a routine training operation when their AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter collided with a Coast Guard Hercules HC-130 plane about 20 miles off San Clemente Island, according to a Marines news release.
Retired Marine Col. Greg Akers was the commanding officer of CU's naval ROTC, the unit in which Claiborne was a member.
"He was a fine young man," Akers said. "I was very proud of him. He was very bright and had a dry sense of humor. He had one of those mischievous grins."
Donna Gerren, a senior instructor in aerospace engineering at CU, remembers that same grin. She said Claiborne stood out; he was a dedicated student, she said, and he did his work with a smile.
"I've seen literally thousands of students, and after so many years, you tend to forget the details of each student's life," she said. "But Tom, I remember him so well. He was such a distinctive personality and an outstanding student. He's the kind of student we wish we had all the time."
In addition to excelling at academics, Claiborne liked to work with his hands in the shop, she said. For his senior project, he and a group of other students tested several homemade FanWing devices, which are big, rotating blades attached to an airplane instead of wings. It's an innovative idea, Gerren said, and one that Claiborne and his group examined wholeheartedly.
Even then, Gerren said, Claiborne was clear about his goal of becoming a pilot. When Gerren thinks about him, she said she remembers him with a buzz cut and wearing his dress whites.
"He was just a marvelous person to be around," she said.
Reached at home Tuesday night, Claiborne's father, Kenneth Claiborne, said his son, a 2002 Chaparral High School graduate, had a full ROTC scholarship to CU and graduated magna cum laude. He said the family wasn't making any further public comments.
Thursday's crash after sundown in an area set aside for military exercises by the FAA left Claiborne, another chopper pilot and a crew of seven aboard the Coast Guard plane missing in the Pacific Ocean. Both aircraft were destroyed.
The wreckage was found Saturday, but there were no signs of crash victims.
"Whether they die in combat or training, it's a loss to the brotherhood -- to the Marine Corps -- and to the nation," Akers said.
CU Chancellor Phil DiStefano expressed his sympathy Tuesday.
"Our hearts and deepest sympathies go out to his family and all that knew him in our CU-Boulder family," he said in a statement.
The Associated Press and The Denver Post contributed to this report.