THE LAST DAY ROGER KUBECK spent with his wife, Candi, was on May 7, his 38th birthday, when she baked him a chocolate cake with a toy plane on top and a runway of M&Ms. "I think it was the happiest she'd ever been in her life," Kubeck says. For months, the couple, both commercial airline pilots, had been struggling over whether to keep their Phoenix home near the base of his employer, America West, or move to Dallas or Atlanta, centers for her airline, ValuJet. After a small birthday celebration, Roger dropped her off at the airport for her flight back to work in Dallas, then, after some thought, left a phone message at an apartment she kept near there. "I told her if she wanted to move to Atlanta, I'd move," Roger recalls. "Or if she wanted to come home and be a housewife, she could do that too."

The couple never reached a decision. Four days later—a day after she turned 35—Candi Kubeck died when the DC-9 she was piloting crashed into the murky Florida Everglades, killing 105 passengers and all five crew members. The tragedy ended the life of a woman in love with flying. "She didn't consider herself a girl pilot," says Roger Kubeck. "She considered herself a pilot, period. She thought of herself as one of the guys." Yet in an occupation that is 98-percent male, the blonde, blue-eyed Kubeck—known for her perfectionism—was never able to escape the distinctions of gender, even in death, becoming the first woman captain to die in a commercial air crash.

Born Candalyn Chamberlin on May 10, 1961, in Los Angeles, she arrived a year after her parents, Hugh and Marilyn Chamberlin, having lost a baby in childbirth, had adopted a son, Douglas (now a 36-year-old hardware store employee in Georgia). "She was a delightful surprise," says Hugh, 69, a retired advertising executive. Growing up in Encino and Rancho Santa Fe, then a rural community north of San Diego, she often visited her maternal grandfather, Andrew Cline, never tiring of his tales of flying rickety World War I biplanes. Her uncle Geoffrey Cline, a former Marine Corps pilot, often took Candi and Douglas up for rides in his Bellanca airplane. For her 16th birthday, Candi's father gave her a gift of three flying lessons. The experience "ignited a fire that never stopped," says Marilyn, 65, who was divorced from Hugh in the mid-'70s. "It was flying, flying—every spare minute."

A straight-A high school student, according to her mother, Candi in 1978 entered Palomar junior college near San Diego, where she studied aerospace science and was captain of the flying team. Kent Backart, a now-retired professor who taught her aeronautics at Palomar, recalls her determination to become a commercial pilot despite the odds. "She was so dedicated," he says of her activities with the flying team. "She'd even get out there and push the planes around if that's what needed to be done." In 1981 she enrolled at Denver's Metropolitan State College, where she led a flying team that challenged and defeated an Air Force Academy squad in precision and tactical maneuvers.

Graduating in 1982, she first took a job as an air traffic controller in El Paso. Finding the work "kind of bleak," according to Roger, she quit and found her next job as a flight instructor at San Diego's Montgomery Field. That was where Roger—then a young freight pilot flying daily to San Diego from Northern California—first saw her in early 1986. "I noticed this cute blonde girl in this red sweater," he says. "I started looking at her, and she finally noticed me looking."

From the beginning, Candi, a devout Christian Scientist, had a positive influence on Kubeck, the third of four brothers whose father sold farm equipment. "She really moderated me," says Kubeck, a native of El Centro, Calif. "I was a free-wheeling, happy-go-lucky guy on the verge of being irresponsible." On Easter 1987, at a Jolly Roger restaurant near Los Angeles International Airport, the two became engaged. That September they married.

After piloting for two cargo carriers, Kubeck achieved her goal of flying commercial jets in 1989 when she crossed a picket line of striking pilots to land a job at Eastern Airlines—a move she thought necessary to break in. Despite harassment from strikers, she got the chance to fly Airbus 300s, often working with veteran pilots nearing retirement. "She was the only girl most of these old guys had ever flown with," says Roger. "Once these guys knew her, they loved her." After Eastern went bankrupt in 1991, she flew for several small commuter airlines before being hired by the discount airline Valujet when it started flying in 1993.

Despite their commuter lifestyle—Roger had started flying for America West in 1988—the Kubecks bought a one-story stucco house in Phoenix, a short drive from the airport, in 1989. Candi bicycled and Rollerbladed around the subdivision with Barkley, their black Labrador, and Roger tinkered with a 1950s Piper Pacer he was overhauling in the garage. Though they had no children (they had been discussing the possibility lately), the couple's house was full of teddy bears, model planes and toy trains. "We were kind of big kids," Roger says.

But on the job, Candi was all business. She had logged nearly 9,000 hours of flying time and was known for keeping meticulous safety notes and sensible hours. Her FAA record noted just two minor incidents while she was flying commercial planes, but neither resulted in injury to passengers or disciplinary action. When friends offered to take her out on her birthday May 10, she chose to wait until the following night. "She was very conscientious about getting her rest and not drinking when she was flying," says Ken Peery, 47, a neighbor near her Bedford, Texas, apartment.

The celebration never took place. That Saturday, after Roger spent the afternoon fishing at an Arizona lake with a neighbor, he returned home to find a small crowd in his driveway, including his chief pilot, Randy Owen. "He told me there was a crash and Candi was gone," Roger says, still stunned. After a sleepless night, he turned on the television to see coverage from the crash site. "There was nothing to see—I knew there were no survivors," says Roger, who recalls Candi's anger after 7-year-old pilot Jessica Dubroff's mother implied her death was somehow joyful. "No matter how much you love flying," he said, "that's not the way you want to go."

As investigators continue to probe the causes of the disaster and divers in the Everglades work to recover remains, relatives struggle to make sense of the tragedy. In her home in Alpharetta, Ga., Marilyn Chamberlin fingers a gold charm bracelet with a tiny plane, passport and camera—the Mother's Day gift from Candi that arrived the day before the crash. "They say life is what you make it," read the Snoopy card that came with it. "Thanks for making it so nice."

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles, SCOTT LAFEE in San Diego, GAIL WESCOTT in Atlanta and CARLTON STOWERS in Bedford

  • Contributors:
  • Lynda Wright,
  • Scott Lafee,
  • Gail Wescott,
  • Carlton Stowers.