In the wake of a series of private plane crashes, including one that killed singer Rick Nelson and five members of his entourage, Supervisor Bruce Nestande on Monday sought an investigation to determine whether aircraft maintenance businesses can be evicted from John Wayne Airport if they are negligent.
"With the flurry of accidents we've had lately, I've been asking this question for a long time: What can we do to protect the public from unsafe airplanes?" Nestande said. "As far as I'm concerned, if they're found to be negligent they should be out in the street. They should not be operating here in Orange County."
Nestande said his request was prompted in part by reports that an Orange County firm, UCO Air, had done recent maintenance work on Nelson's DC-3, which crashed in flames near DeKalb, Tex. Friends and relatives of some of the dead band members have said the 40-year-old aircraft had been beset by engine trouble for several months, prompting one of them to file a wrongful death suit against owners of the aircraft and an aircraft service firm other than UCO Air.
Letter to Manager
"Initial reports of the . . . crash appear to raise concerns as to whether this leased aircraft was properly maintained and whether this may have contributed to the accident," Nestande said in a letter to John Wayne Airport Manager George Rebella.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 6, 1986 Orange County Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Metro Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
A Jan. 14 Orange County edition article on aircraft maintenance at John Wayne Airport did not intend to imply that UCO Air was in any way connected with the Dec. 31 crash of singer Rick Nelson's airplane.
"At various times, UCO worked on that plane," Nestande added in an interview. "I'm not for a moment suggesting their involvement in (the crash). They weren't even part of the lawsuit. But all of this knowledge and all of these things that have occurred, I want to know what we can do."
Vern Hickey, director of maintenance at John Wayne's Tallmantz Aviation, said he would welcome increased supervision by the county.
"There's more borderline airplanes on this airport than anyplace I ever worked at," he said, referring primarily to privately owned aircraft parked at the north end of the airport which are maintained by private mechanics. Often, he said, airplane owners go to mechanics who charge cheaper rates but who may not do adequate inspections.
"You have mechanics up there working out of the trunk of their car," Hickey said. "I can't understand how the airport lets them get by with that. Most airports do not. Most airports if I went in as a mechanic to work out of the back of my car, they'd chase me out of there."
Installed New Engine
Cliff Taber, director of maintenance at UCO Air, said the company's only involvement with the Nelson plane, based off and on at John Wayne Airport for a period of several months, was a new engine installed over the summer.
"We had some familiarity with the engine and with the airplane. It was one of those things; it was broke, we fixed it and got away from it. We weren't responsible for the daily maintenance. The pilot pretty well took care of that," Taber said.
He said the two-engine, propeller-driven DC-3 was "a pretty good airplane . . . it'd been fairly well taken care of," but it had repeated problems nonetheless.
"It let them down in a lotta ways, and a lot of times he (the pilot) wouldn't fly it. They had a lot of cancellations because they couldn't get certain things fixed, but they had trouble getting things fixed because it was hard to get parts," he said.
The pilot of the plane, Brad Rank, often kept the plane at John Wayne Airport because it was near his home in Dana Point, although the plane was normally based at Chino, several airport officials said.
Rank, 34, and co-pilot Kenneth Ferguson, 40, survived the crash but remained hospitalized this week.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Brad Dunbar said Monday it will be several months before the cause of the crash is determined, though investigators have concluded that the aircraft already was in flames when it landed in the Texas field.
Full maintenance records on the airplane have not yet been reviewed by federal investigators, Dunbar said. The safety board learned only last week that Nelson was the owner of the plane, Dunbar said, having recently acquired it from Century Equipment Co., previously reported as owner of the aircraft.
In his letter Monday to airport manager Rebella, Nestande asked for a legal review to determine whether the county can terminate its leases with businesses at John Wayne Airport if operators are found to be negligent in maintaining planes.
"Regardless of the outcome of the investigation of this (the Nelson) incident, it seems to me that the county ought to take every step to assure that it is doing business with quality fixed-base operators who maintain the highest professional standards with respect to air safety," Nestande said.