Ohio man brings closure to family members of pilot in deadly 1951 plane crash

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UNIONTOWN, OHIO - The unusual hobby of one Uniontown man is helping bridge the past and present and provide closure to the surviving children of a nearly 70-year-old plane crash.

"It means even more when you know there was a fatality involved," said 62-year-old Pete Esterle, holding a part of the 1951 wreckage of the P-51 H Mustang, "This guy died serving his country."

Esterle seemed to inherit his father's love of planes and began researching crash reports to see what he could find. His search led him to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee three years ago where it took years of searching to find two pieces of the plane.

He later discovered the victim of the plane crash was a Medina County native, Lt. Robert Hartman killed in 1951. Esterle's weeks long search for relatives ended Thursday when he received a call more than 2,000 miles away.

"Out of the blue the son calls me and I said, 'Hello,'" explained Esterle with a grin. "He said, 'This is Rodney Hartman,' I was like, wow!"

Hartman spoke with Fox 8 from Phoenix over the phone about life since the devastating crash.

"I was 6, my little sister was only 9 weeks old," said Hartman, "My father left on a training flight to Florida and on the way back they ran into heavy weather over the Smoky Mountains. Flight later called them to go up to 40,000 feet to go over it. From what I'm told, my father's oxygen system failed so he basically flew into a mountain. Hopefully he never woke up."

The two spoke for the first time Thursday morning during an emotional call. Years after being forced to say goodbye Hartman said he is looking forward to soon possessing pieces of the plane his father held dear.

"I told him, I hoped I was doing the right thing because I knew it was painful, but maybe it would offer some closure," said Esterle initially hesitant to make the connection. "He said, 'You did the right thing Pete, you did the right thing.'"

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