Bob Russell, founder of one of the Midlands’ major real estate companies, died Saturday when his airplane crashed into a pond shortly after taking off from Columbia Metropolitan Airport, authorities said.
The 85-year-old Russell died from injuries suffered in the crash, Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher said. No one else was on board.
“An icon in our industry has passed away,” said Morris Lyles, president of Central Carolina Realtors Association.
The plane was headed toward Asheville – where friends said Russell had a vacation home – when he turned back toward the airport shortly after take-off after reporting mechanical difficulty, according to airport spokeswoman Kaela Harmon.
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His dog Rambo, who sometimes rode on the flights, also perished in the crash, according to real estate agent Jason Compton of the company’s branch in Lexington.
Russell was an experienced pilot who was a member of the South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame.
“Flying was his passion,” said fellow real estate agent Jimmy Derrick, who knew Russell more than 40 years.
Russell & Jeffcoat Real Estate turned 50 this month.
“The company is a class act,” said Eddie Wilder, founder of ERA Wilder Realty. “It is something special.”
Russell started the company from scratch in 1965 with an idea and hard work. His partner Abb Jeffcoat joined the firm a little later. He died in 2011.
“He was such a focused businessman but also so well-rounded,” said Sally Newell, sales manager at the firm’s Lexington office and a Russell associate for more than 40 years.
Russell & Jeffcoat planned a 50-year anniversary party for later this month.
“Being sustainable for that long in business is very tough,” said developer Stewart Mungo, whose company often works with Russell & Jeffcoat. “He was good at putting the right people in the right place at the right time.”
Ron Roe, president and CEO of Russell & Jeffcoat, said Russell gave “true meaning to the words ‘renaissance man.’”
“Bob is a remarkable, remarkable human being, a true man of character from the old school,” Roe said. “He was just beloved by everyone in our company.”
Roe described Russell as an avid golfer who could still shoot in the 70s, a master singer and piano player and a great pilot. At one time, Roe said, Russell was “the best stunt pilot in America.”
“You can learn a lot by the way someone plays golf,” Compton said. “It was by the book with Bob.”
Russell also appeared on local stages, primarily at Town Theatre, in the 1980s and 1990s. He also wrote two motivational books.
Roe said he has no doubt the crash was a result of mechanical failure, not pilot error.
Russell’s wife, Patty, lives in Columbia, Roe said. Russell also has two adult children, daughter Renee and son Rip.
“I loved Bob like a brother,” said Roe, who has been with the company for 20 years.
Wilder said he gained expertise in the industry from advice gleaned from Jeffcoat during occasional lunches.
Derrick, who worked for rival firms, said Russell was “a fierce competitor” yet compassionate about his staff, local charities and contributing to the growth of the Columbia area.
“He was very savvy,” Derrick said. “He seemed to be able to get a lot more done quicker than most people.”
Compton said Russell set the tone for the company, saying “he could command the room.”
Russell’s single-engine airplane went down in a pond on private property on Collumwood Circle off Old Barnwell Road near the Pine Grove Softball Complex, about a mile west of the airport.
The aircraft took off at 9:15 a.m. and five minutes later, the airport’s public safety department received an alert of the plane’s possible engine failure and was on stand-by. Harmon said. Shortly afterward, the airport tower lost contact, she said.
The partly submerged plane was pulled from the water a few hours after the crash. Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board will lead the investigation.
Staff writer Mindy Lucas contributed to this story.