SANTA PAULA — Two men were killed and three others--including actor Kirk Douglas--were injured Wednesday when a helicopter and a small plane collided above Santa Paula Airport.
Douglas, 72, a passenger in the helicopter, was treated at Santa Paula Memorial Hospital and later flown to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood, where he was reported in satisfactory condition Wednesday night.
Officials in Santa Paula in Ventura County said the actor suffered head cuts and a possible rib fracture.
Also aboard the helicopter was Noel Blanc, 52, son of the late Mel Blanc, the legendary master of cartoon voices. Blanc was in serious condition in the intensive-care unit of the Santa Paula hospital with chest injuries and a leg fracture. Blanc, also a cartoon voice and producer of commercials, owned the helicopter and reportedly was piloting it.
The third occupant of the helicopter, Beverly Hills Police Officer Michael Carra, was treated at the Santa Paula hospital for cuts and bruises and released.
Both men on the plane were killed. Witnesses identified the pilot as Lee Manelski, 46, of Santa Paula, a veteran stunt-flying instructor and airline pilot. His passenger was an 18-year-old man, officials said. His name was withheld pending notification of relatives.
The crash occurred about 3:30 p.m. just after the Bell JetRanger helicopter lifted off the airport helipad. Instead of heading south over the Santa Clara River bed--the normal route for helicopters--it apparently flew north over the airport's only runway and into the path of a Pitts Aerobatic plane.
"The plane attempted to take evasive action and hit the rotors of the helicopter," Santa Paula Fire Department spokesman Bill Nash said. The silver-colored helicopter, minus a rotor, plunged 20 to 40 feet, hit the runway and turned on its side. The red, white and blue plane crashed about 200 feet farther down the runway, flipped over and burst into flames.
"As the airplane came down, little pieces began flying around the runway," said Ramon Plascencia, an airport employee. "There was some fire coming out of it. Then it exploded. They never had a chance."
It took firefighters with chainsaws 90 minutes to remove the bodies from the plane wreckage.
A paramedic who was at the scene said Douglas, Blanc and Carra were disoriented and told him they did not know what had happened.
"They knew there was an accident, but not why it happened," paramedic Jason Johnson said.
But Police Sgt. Mark Trimble said all three men were alert and talking with hospital staff when they arrived there about 4 p.m.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are expected to examine the crash scene today, Police Chief Walt Adair said.
The airport, a general-aviation field on the southern edge of Santa Paula, is an "uncontrolled" facility with no tower or air-traffic controllers, officials said.
At uncontrolled airports, there is a single radio frequency by which all pilots are supposed to communicate, reporting their location and intentions--"Pitts N1234 departing Runway 2," for example.
But pilots at uncontrolled airports are not required to have a radio or to use one. Pilots are expected to look carefully to make sure the airspace is free of other aircraft as they prepare to take off or land.
On Wednesday, "the helicopter apparently drifted over the runway," airport manager Will Morte said. "Normally, they go toward the river."
"He got too close to the runway," the airport employee said of the helicopter pilot. "They didn't see each other until the last moment."
The Pitts is a small, fast aircraft that is favored for aerobatic flying and air show performances. But sources familiar with the plane say visibility is limited at ground level because the plane sits with its tail low, and the engine cowling blocks forward view. Typically, the pilot must zigzag down the taxiway, alternately looking out one side and then the other.
Trimble said Douglas was in Santa Paula to confer with a local woman about a book.
"After this they'll definitely have something to write about," the police sergeant said.
Among Douglas' more than 70 films are "A Letter to Three Wives," "Ulysses," "In Harm's Way," "Seven Days in May," "The Bad and the Beautiful," "Lonely Are the Brave," "The Arrangement," "The Fury" and "Paths of Glory."
About 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Douglas was wheeled to the helicopter that would transport him to Cedars-Sinai. The actor sat upright, aided by his son Peter.
Noel Blanc is the cartoon voice of some of the "Looney Tunes" characters created by his father, including Sylvester the cat and Tweetie. Dan Vinokur, a friend of Blanc and a fellow aviator, said Blanc is "an extremely capable pilot."
Manelski, the plane's pilot, was a "very safe pilot. He was not a hot-dog pilot or a showoff," airplane business owner Doug Dullenkopf said.
A pilot since 1962, Manelski was a first officer with Trans World Airlines and a member of the U.S. aerobatic flight team. He had planned to journey to the Soviet Union soon to fly with a Soviet team. In an interview last year, Manelski said he flew about 25 days a month.
Times staff writers Vivian Louie, Psyche Pascual, Richard O'Reilly and Tina Daunt and correspondents Christopher Pummer and Sharon Bernstein also contributed to this story.