Doug Matheson, 88, was a retired judge and a well-known figure in Edmonton's aviation community. (Courtesy of Ross McBain)

The pilot who died in a plane crash in central Alberta on Monday was a former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot who flew Spitfires in the Second World War and became a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down over France in 1943.

Doug Matheson, 88, was a lawyer, a retired Alberta Court of Queen's Bench judge and a well-known figure in Edmonton's aviation community.

The wreckage of Matheson's plane, a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza, was discovered late Tuesday afternoon near Castor, Alta., about 130 kilometres east of Red Deer. The pilot was not immediately identified.

Matheson took off from Edmonton's City Centre Airport on Monday afternoon on a pleasure flight over the Alberta Badlands but didn't return when expected.

Military searchers were alerted Monday night. Civilian search and rescue planes joined them in the search Tuesday.

Flyer in good shape

After Matheson was shot down over France in 1943, he spent a few months with the French Resistance before he was captured and was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. He returned to Edmonton after the war and went to law school.

Despite his age, Matheson took care of himself so he could keep flying, said longtime friend and former pilot Ross McBain, founder of the McBain Camera chain.

"He was in good shape there was no question about that," McBain said.

"He was taking a helicopter licence, yeah. We teased him about that, too, but he thought, 'There's one thing I haven't done is flown a helicopter and I'm gonna fly a helicopter,' and he was determined to keep on."

Friends said Matheson had gone through all the necessary tests and was cleared to fly.

Conservative Edmonton MP Laurie Hawn, a retired air force pilot, considered Matheson a good friend and last saw him about a month ago in an event at Edmonton City Centre Airport.

"He was just a tremendous source of inspiration to young pilots and to old pilots,"  Hawn said.

"His spirit was a spirit of flight. His life was in full flight and that's the way he ended it, in full flight, and he probably wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Matheson was also remembered at Edmonton's City Centre Airport.

"He was always moving forward," said pilot Tom Hinderks of the Alberta Aviation Museum. "He's left a remarkable mark on our history."

The plane appeared to have gone into a nosedive before impact, Mike Tomm, an investigator with the Transportation Safety Board, said Wednesday.

"From the indications we have so far it appears that .... for whatever reason, the airplane entered an extreme nose-down attitude and impacted almost in a vertical position to the ground."

There is no indication there were any thunderstorms or bad weather in the area at the time, Tomm said.

The plane will be moved by Thursday to a place where investigators can examine the engine.