SUN VALLEY — The pilot of a single-engine plane apparently attempted to make an emergency landing on the Golden State Freeway moments after taking off from Burbank Airport on Wednesday afternoon but crashed into the freeway embankment, killing himself and his parents. The disabled plane angled down toward the traffic-filled highway, its wings dipping back and forth, then smashed into the ground, just yards short of the busy freeway, witnesses said.
Burbank firefighters arrived quickly with fire-retardant foam, but there was no fire.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mitch Barker said the Beechcraft Sundowner took off from Burbank Airport on its way to Palo Alto moments before the 1:45 p.m. crash.
The pilot rented the plane in Riverside and then flew to Burbank, where he picked up his parents for the flight to the Bay Area, said Thomas Wilcox, an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
The Los Angeles County coroner withheld the identities of the victims Wednesday night pending notification of relatives.
Officials were unable to immediately establish the cause of the crash.
Wilcox said he concluded after a preliminary examination that the propeller was not turning on impact, possibly suggesting engine failure.
However, he said, "it's quite possible that the pilot saw impact was imminent and he could have cut the power off."
There were no reports of a distress call to the airport tower, Wilcox said. The pilot was properly licensed with the FAA, but had fewer than 150 hours of logged flight time, Wilcox said. It had not been determined whether the plane had gas in its tank, Wilcox said.
The wreckage will be taken to Compton Airport for thorough examination.
Airport spokesman Victor Gill said the plane took off to the east, then turned north, crossing the freeway. Witnesses said it appeared to have turned back and was approaching the freeway from the north when it dropped sharply at the last moment.
It crashed into the north bank of the freeway at the Cohasset Street underpass, less than a block on the Sun Valley side of the Burbank border.
"It's obvious they made some attempt to land," said LAPD Lt. Tony Alba, echoing the accounts of several witnesses.
"Its wings were dipping left to right," said witness Jim Wahler, "and it appeared to have almost no air speed whatsoever."
"He was going awful slow," said Carmen McMickens of Pasadena, who was driving on the freeway when she saw the plane overhead.
"I saw it rocking and then I thought, 'This plane is going down.' "
McMickens said she watched the plane descend from about 80 feet and then pitch suddenly to one side as it crashed, crushing the cockpit area.
Exiting at the next offramp, McMickens circled back and reached the crash site at Glenoaks Boulevard and Cohasset Street before firefighters cordoned off the intersection.
She said she could see the bodies of the pilot and one passenger in the wreckage. "You see it on TV, but when you see it happen, it's amazing," McMickens said.
Gill said the last previous fatal crash of a flight from Burbank occurred in 1990 when four people died in a single-engine Piper Warrior on a training flight to Santa Barbara. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the pilot's judgment was impaired by the use of marijuana.
The most recent nonfatal crash occurred in April, when a landing gear failure caused a Cessna 310 to tip onto its nose. No injuries were reported.
Times staff writer Efrain Hernandez and correspondent Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this story.