Donnie Prince and Les Fortner
Donnie Prince and Les Fortner, with Fortner's daughter Cheryl and grandson Anthony
PLACERVILLE, CA - The Placerville man who stumbled upon aircraft wreckage while camping in the Nevada desert two years ago finally met the Navy pilot who safely bailed out of the plane in 1960.
"It was one of the highlights of my life," said Donnie Prince, 63, a former Air Force mechanic.
Previous story: Placerville man's jet wreckage mystery solved
In May 2011, Prince found the wreckage of the fighter jet along with a large bone on a dry lake bed northwest of Lovelock and wondered what had become of the pilot.
Happily, the bone had nothing to do with the crash.
After the story aired on News10, aviation archaeologist Craig Fuller provided a newspaper clipping and Navy accident report indicating the crash occurred during gunnery practice and that the pilot, 38-year-old Commander Leslie Fortner, had not been injured.
A web search led Prince to retired Sunday school teacher Les Fortner, a decorated World War II veteran, now 92, and living with his daughter and grandson in Coronado.
The two exchanged letters and phone calls, and Prince sent some of the plane's wreckage to Fortner.
Last Thursday, Prince and his wife Debbie treated Fortner to an Italian dinner in Coronado.
"Debbie had a one-day business trip to San Diego and we turned it into a week-long vacation," Prince said.
Prince said the meeting was emotional for both men.
"Sitting next to him at the dinner table was an absolute honor. I'm a disabled vet myself and this guy, he layed it all on the line."
Prince learned that Fortner had once shot down a Kamikaze pilot with his Hellcat fighter near the end of World War II.
"It was a twin-engine Kamikaze and therefore carried a heavy load of bombs, and he possibly saved his ship," Prince said.
Prince still has many of the parts he recovered from Fortner's plane - he's even given him some. The afterburner is now a firepit where kids roast marshmallows in Prince's backyard.
But he said finding Fortner has changed his life.
"When I found out that it was Les and he was alive, man, it was like turning the cap on a Pepsi bottle," Prince said. "All that pressure just released. And it was all good."