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Tuesday, December 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Pilot, 40, worked at Amazon.com

By Jennifer Sullivan
Seattle Times staff reporter

PHOTO COURTESY OF GEHLEN FAMILY
John Gehlen and his dog, Morton, in a recent photograph. Gehlen had flown small planes for about five years before he died Sunday.
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Pilot dies when his plane crashes at Renton airport

A Magnolia man who died after his plane crashed in Renton on Sunday afternoon was one of the earliest hires at Amazon.com.

John Gehlen, 40, had flown small planes for about five years, his family said yesterday. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said he was doing a "touch-and-go" flight — where the plane lands momentarily and takes off again — at Renton Municipal Airport when the crash occurred.

Investigators aren't sure why the 1975 Cessna C-185 banked to the left after taking off for the sixth time. Its left wing hit the ground, and the aircraft slid into a barrier, according to NTSB investigator Kurt Anderson.

Gehlen told an air-traffic controller something like, "I've got a problem here," Anderson said.

"He was a very, very cautious pilot," his stepmother, Jackie Gehlen, said yesterday.

Gehlen was born in Evanston, Ill., but grew up in Seattle. He graduated from Franklin High School in 1982, and in 1986 he received a bachelor's degree in analytical chemistry from the University of Washington. He received a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, in theoretical chemistry and a postdoctoral degree from the University of California, Davis, in theoretical chemical physics.

"He was very intelligent," said Alexei Stuchebrukhov, a professor of theoretical and computational biophysics and biochemistry at UC Davis. "He was very friendly and an independent spirit."

Stuchebrukhov said Gehlen could have had a successful career in physics or chemistry but recognized the potential of Amazon.com when the company was just developing.

A spokeswoman at Amazon.com declined to comment yesterday about Gehlen. She would confirm only that he was the company's 45th hire.

Gehlen's relatives say he remained a software engineer but could have been promoted into management at the online retailer. But he "refused to have anything to do with management," Jackie Gehlen said.

"He was just a scientist," said his stepmother, whose husband, Pierre Gehlen, is a mechanical-engineering professor at Seattle University.

"His loves in life, besides flying, were animals," she said.

Gehlen and Morton, his Dalmatian and black Lab mix, twice a day walked through Discovery Park in the Magnolia area, where they were well-known, she said.

Gehlen had been building his dream home on Orcas Island. He and his longtime girlfriend, Julia Davis, spent Thanksgiving scuba diving in Bora Bora in the South Pacific.

In addition to his father, stepmother and girlfriend, Gehlen is survived by his mother, Anny Rutten, and her husband, Bob Abram, of Tucson, Ariz. He also is survived by his sister, Patricia Gehlen, also of Tucson.

A funeral Mass will be said at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University.

In lieu of flowers, Gehlen's family is requesting donations be made to Three Rivers Rescue, P.O. Box 1538, Snoqualmie, WA 98065. For more information, go to www.threeriversrescue.org online.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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