OCEANSIDE — A pilot and his passenger were killed Thursday when their single-engine plane lost power just after taking off from the Oceanside Municipal Airport, crashed into the roof of an industrial building and exploded into flames.
The victims were identified as Stephen Chamblin, 39, and Stephen Estrada, 36 both of Honeydew, Calif., 50 miles south of Eureka. Officials said the two men were headed home Thursday after a two-day visit with Chamblin's parents, Mason and Ruth Chamblin of Escondido, who watched the plane go down.
Nine employees of R/C Helicopters International Inc., which makes miniature, radio-controlled helicopters used in motion pictures and by hobbyists, were in the building at the time of the crash, but no one was injured.
"I remember hearing the sound of an engine sputtering overhead, and the next thing I knew the plane came blasting through the roof in a ball of fire," said Tom Weatherby, a machinist working in the company's machine shop at the time of the crash. "Then my buddy grabbed me and we got the heck out of there."
Weatherby said that he and machinist Lowell Draper were standing about 15 feet from where the plane landed after it dropped through the structure's timber roof.
Oceanside fire officials estimated damage to the building at 594 Airport Road at $25,000 and said the loss of machinery inside totaled more than $100,000.
Initially, firefighters feared that the flames would ignite highly explosive airplane fuel and flammable plastics that are stored in the building. But the fire was contained before it reached the materials, and damage was confined largely to the roof and the machine shop.
The crash occurred just after 11 a.m. when Chamblin took off heading west from the busy commercial airport, about five miles east of downtown Oceanside in the San Luis Rey Valley.
"He got airborne and was between 200 and 300 feet elevation when his engine started acting rough," said airport manager Joe Deggendorf, who was operating a sweeper near the runway when the plane passed overhead. "Suddenly, he tried to make a left turn, which didn't work because of the low altitude and low engine power. So he stalled and crashed into the building, nose first."
The impact sheared off the plane's left wing, which slid into a crevice between the R/C International building and an adjacent print shop. The remainder of the plane, manufactured by the Mooney Aircraft Corp. of Texas, exploded into flames and fell through the roof.
Ken Slayton, a stockroom clerk for The ECD Deutsch Co., a neighboring manufacturing company, was in his car in the buildings' common parking lot when the four-passenger propeller plane went down.
"I was about to head out for lunch when I saw the plane stalemate in the air, about 50 feet above me," Slayton said. "I heard it go tat, tat, tat, and I knew it was going down. It looked like he was trying to get back to the runway."
After the crash, Slayton and Peter Goethel, an employee from another neighboring company, attempted to open a back door of the plane and aid the two victims. But the door was locked, and the intense heat and the power of the gasoline-fueled explosion had begun to melt the building's aluminum garage door.
"There wasn't anything we could do but watch and wait," Slayton said.
Oceanside police spokesman Tom Bussey said that Chamblin's parents, who had dropped the two men off Thursday morning and had watched while they refueled the plane and taxied onto the runway, witnessed the crash.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.
R/C (for radio-controlled) Helicopters International, formerly American R/C Helicopters Inc. of San Marcos, has 10 full-time employees. The company's helicopters, which are about one-sixth the size of real ones, were used in the action movie "Blue Thunder."
Company President Nicholas DeRosa said that although the fire spared most of his inventory, flames damaged many of the machines needed to complete an order of 400 helicopters due to be shipped out next week.
"This is a real shock, but I guess we'll just have to regroup," DeRosa said.
The busy commercial airport was closed while firefighters battled the blaze but was reopened by mid-afternoon, Deggendorf said.
He said Thursday's crash was the worst at the airport since October, 1982, when a single-engine Bonanza crashed northeast of the runway near a drive-in theater, killing the four people aboard.