Wal-Mart mourns billionaire heir who died in air crash

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John Walton, second son of the late Sam Walton, founder of the American discount retail behemoth Wal-Mart, died on Monday after his experimental ultra-lite aircraft crashed shortly after take-off from Jackson Hole, where he had his home, in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Mr Walton, listed by Forbes magazine as the 11th most wealthy person in the world with personal assets of $18.2bn (£10bn), was found dead at the scene shortly after the aircraft hit the ground. He was 58. The accident plunged the tight-knit Walton family as well as friends at Wal-Mart's world headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, into mourning. "I think all you can say is he was just a good man and today, you grieve," Jay Allen, Wal-Mart senior vice-president of corporate affairs, said.

Mr Walton joined the board of Wal-Mart, which owns the Asda supermarket chain in Britain, in 1992 and headed its well-known philanthropist efforts in improving school education as chairman of the Walton Family Foundation. He was also co-founder of the Children's Scholarship Fund, which distributed scholarships to disadvantaged children to attend private schools in the United States. Since its inception in 1998, the fund has benefited roughly 67,000 children.

A profile of Mr Walton in Fortune magazine called him a renaissance man, because of his interest in outdoor activities, flying and technical innovations. He had, for instance, built two motorised bicycles.

The plane he was piloting on Monday was an experimental craft, powered by a small petrol engine with wings consisting of light material not unlike a yacht's sails, wrapped around a frame.

Fortune also described Mr Walton as the "crusader" of the family because of his commitment to improving schools in America. "Our family has come to the conclusion that there is no other single area of activity that would have the breadth of impact that improving ... education in America would have," he told the magazine. "It would have a positive impact on every single societal challenge that we face, from crime to productivity to economic health and growth, to true equality."

Tall and slim, Mr Walton dropped out of college to serve as a medic with the elite Green Berets in the Vietnam War and was awarded a Silver Star for valour for saving the lives of several servicemen while under fire. On his return, he eschewed the opportunity to work for the already fast-growing Wal-Mart Corporation, instead becoming a crop-duster. He never did work full-time for the company.

Mr Walton, who held nearly 12 million shares of Wal-Mart stock when he died, is survived by his wife, Christy, and son, Luke. Other family members mourning his loss include his mother, Helen Walton, 85, two brothers and a sister. His older brother, Rob, is now chairman of the Wal-Mart board.