BEMIDJI – The president of Bemidji Aviation Services Inc. who died after his plane crashed Tuesday, will be remembered as a “superb pilot” who was a fair, generous and conscientious person, his business partner said.
Larry Diffley, 74, was flying solo in a twin-engine Beech Baron, inspecting an oil pipeline near Chicago, when the aircraft crashed about 2:45 p.m., said Mark Shough, the vice president of Bemidji Aviation who bought the company with Diffley in 1970.
Shough said Diffley left Bemidji on Tuesday morning, and was in radio contact during the flight with the pipeline company that contracted with him. Pipeline companies contract with aviation firms to perform aerial inspections.
Bemidji Aviation is working with the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash along with the Federal Aviation Administration.
"He was a superb pilot," Shough said Tuesday night. "He was able to fly any plane, anytime, anywhere.
“He had great business sense. He was always making sure the company was on the right road business-wise. I was always the guy spending money on the planes. He was the revenue guy."
But Shough said he’ll remember his long-time business partner as more than a pilot.
"He was a conscientious guy. When the chips were down, he was always there to help you,” Shough said. “He always said he wasn't Santa Claus, but he was very generous and always fair to people."
In the 1960s, Diffley and Shough met while serving in the National Guard in Inglewood, Calif.
“We ended up buying an airplane together in Los Angeles, and then went around looking for a job with the airlines,” Shough said. “We weren't having any luck, so we decided to buy a business together, a fixed-base operation.”
After reading in the Pioneer about the aviation company for sale in his hometown, Diffley brought Shough to Bemidji in November 1969 to check out the company.
“So in April of 1970 we came here and bought the place,” Shough said. “He was more the pilot and I was the mechanic kind of guy. We figured we could make a good team.”
The company grew from four employees – Shough, Diffley, Diffley’s late wife Mimi and a flight instructor – in the early years to employing 45 people. Shough said the company started with four airplanes and now owns nearly 40.
The business partners also operated Bemidji Airlines, with three flights per day to the Twin Cities from 1981 to 1991. However, stiff competition from larger airlines, with frequent-flyer programs, forced them to close down in 1991, Shough said.
In 2006, Bemidji Aviation became an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) and offers a fleet of cargo and passenger planes.
In a statement, Bemidji Aviation employees said they wanted to “express their deepest sympathy to the Diffley family. This is a profound loss for their family, our company, and the Bemidji community.”