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Lack of Fuel Ruled Out as Cause of Plane Crash

October 02, 1987|PATRICK McDONNELL | Times Staff Writer

As U.S. and Mexican investigators continued their inquiry Thursday into the airplane crash that left six people dead on a fog-shrouded Otay Mesa hillside, officials have ruled out the possibility that the aircraft may have run out of fuel.

John Tompkins, a representative of the Federal Aviation Administration in San Diego, said investigators had determined that the aircraft's two engines were still operating when the plane--on its way to Tijuana's airport--hit ground just inside the United States at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

The lack of a fire at the crash site and the absence of an odor of gasoline amid the wreckage had prompted speculation that the aircraft--a chartered, six-seat Cessna 340--may have run out of fuel. But Tompkins said the fact that the engines were still running at the time of the accident proved otherwise.

Looking for Answers

Apart from Tompkins' comments, there were no revelations Thursday about the crash. Investigators are believed to be looking closely at weather conditions--there was dense fog shrouding the airport at the time of the crash. Other factors being examined, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, the independent federal body empowered to investigate such accidents, are the condition of the plane's mechanical equipment and the pilot's qualifications and health.

"We're looking at the whole ball of wax," said Gary Mucho, chief of the safety board's regional office in Los Angeles. "We'll investigate just about anything you can think of."

Killed were the Mexican pilot, two American technicians who worked for a Bay Area firm, and three Japanese officials of a salt exporting company. They were returning from a trip to a salt mine at Guerrero Negro, about 320 miles south of San Diego in Baja California. The Mexican-registered aircraft was rented from an air-taxi service based in Hermosillo, Mexico.

The plane slammed into a hillside about 1.5 miles west of Tijuana International Airport.

A safety board investigator, James Wall, has been examining the wreckage at the crash scene.

Safety board officials are exchanging information with Mexican authorities, Mucho said, and the board is expected to issue its preliminary report next week.

In Mexico, investigators from the General Board of Civil Aeronautics were continuing their inquiry. "We're still gathering information," said Jesus Macias, a board inspector in Tijuana.

Pilot's Decision

Officials on both sides of the border said that it is up to a pilot to decide whether to land during foggy conditions or continue on to another airport. Air traffic controllers had been providing the pilot with up-to-date weather reports, airport officials said. In determining whether to attempt a landing, pilots are expected to gauge weather conditions and follow safety guidelines established for each aircraft and each airport, officials said.

"But it's the pilot's call, one hundred percent," said Tompkins of the FAA.

At the time of the crash, visibility near the Tijuana airport was believed to be minimal. Because of the heavy fog, the airport's runway lights were on, airport officials said. The foggy conditions prompted the pilot to attempt an instrument landing, which emphasizes use of directional equipment and requires less reliance on visual contact with the runway.

Other flights were diverted or their landings were delayed early Wednesday at various airports in the San Diego area, according to the FAA.

A tape of the ill-fated aircraft's communications with the Tijuana control tower shows that the pilot betrayed little awareness of the tragedy that awaited him, according to Miguel Araiza, chief of radar approach control at the Tijuana airport, who listened to the tape.

"His voice in the recording is very calm, very collected," said Araiza. "He's not like a pilot who was pressured."

Those killed were the pilot, Raul Gutierrez Tellez, 24, of the Mexican state of Sonora; Manuel Hernandez, 51, of Oakland, and Ramon Schoenberg, 59, of Richmond, Calif., both employees of Berkeley/Tait Pumps, a pump engineering and manufacturing firm in Richmond, who were looking at pumps at the salt mines; Hideo Omachi, 41; Yoshihito Kodani, 65, and Katsuo Sugimoto, about 55, all reportedly from Toyko, and representatives of Exportadora de Sal, a Mexican-Japanese joint venture.

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