A 17-year-old Thousand Oaks boy and his instructor pilot were killed in a fiery single-engine airplane crash during a flight given to the boy as an early Christmas present from his father.
Michael Jellander and Jacqueline Thompson, 29, of Ventura died instantly when their Cessna 152 smashed into a Ventura hillside late Saturday afternoon just west of Sexton Canyon Road, authorities said.
Rolla (Tommy) Thompson, 71, of Thousand Oaks said his daughter was giving a ride to Michael, who was interested in taking flying lessons.
"It was an early Christmas present; it was a gift certificate for a familiarization flight," said Thompson, a close friend of the Jellander family.
Thompson said his daughter received her instructor's license in May and had more than 500 flight hours.
"She loved flying," he said, adding that his daughter was working toward following his career path as an airline pilot. "We've flown together for three or four years. . . . I was going to fly with her today."
Investigators picked through the burned wreckage Sunday, but did not release a suspected cause of the nose-dive crash that sparked a five-acre brush fire in the hills above Ventura.
Witnesses said they heard the engine sputter shortly before the plane plummeted into the hillside.
"I was inside and you could hear they were having engine trouble," said Ryan Slaton, 18, who saw the crash from his back yard on Plainview Street. "It was a high-pitched sound and then there was a boom."
The crash occurred on the second day of Christmas vacation for Michael Jellander. His father, Herbert, a Continental Airlines pilot, confirmed that he had given Michael the gift certificate because his son was interested in learning to fly.
He declined further comment, saying he and his wife were unprepared to talk publicly about the loss of their only son.
"I think he wanted to be a pilot, like his dad," said Matt Haggenmiller, a friend of Michael's who competed with him on the Thousand Oaks High School swim team. "He told me that he might not be on the swim team this year. He said he might be getting flying lessons from his dad and if he did that, he wouldn't have time to be a swimmer."
Michael's friends described him as a friendly, reserved youth who was well-liked.
"He was tall, good-looking. He was a ladies' man," said Elizabeth Zehr, who also swam with Michael.
Yet his friends said the prospect of flying played a large role in his ambitions. "He said he wanted to get a pilot's license," said Dean Schmitt, another friend.
Jacqueline Thompson, who had worked part-time as a flight instructor at Channel Islands Aviation since May, was "a very competent flier," said Richard Fuller, her supervisor. "She's demonstrated that throughout her training here."
"You don't want to believe it at first," Thompson said, shaken.
Investigators spent most of Sunday combing through the hillside wreckage in search of a cause of the 4:52 p.m. crash.
Although officials said they had no answers yet, they were able to determine that the left wing of the small aircraft crashed into the hill first, followed by the nose, and the craft then slid about 20 feet before exploding.
"Probably the fuel tanks ignited," said Thomas Wilcox, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board. "On impact, the wings were ruptured, spreading fuel over a wide area."
Wilcox said he has not yet reviewed maintenance records of the plane. So far, he said, he has ruled out the possibility that Thompson was having trouble seeing just before the twilight crash.
"The horizon was visible at the time," he said.
Lee Seda, an Oxnard resident who took flying lessons from Thompson, said he soloed recently in the Cessna that crashed and couldn't figure out what had gone wrong.
Seda said he had been scheduled to go on a training flight with Thompson today.
"She was a good instructor. . . . She would go over flight safety all the time and stressed that if your plane stalls, find the best landing spot and stick with that," Seda said. "We stayed away from hills like this. I can't understand what she was doing up here."
Wilcox said it would be about a year before the NTSB releases a final report on the cause of the crash.
Correspondent Christopher Pummer contributed to this story.