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California and the West

2 Killed, 2 Injured as Planes Collide Over San Diego

Accident: Crafts were trying to land at Montgomery Field when one struck the other.

December 25, 1996|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Two small planes collided in midair Tuesday, leaving two people dead and two slightly injured.

A Piper Cherokee and Cessna 150 collided in the westward approach pattern to Montgomery Field, a city-run airport for small planes in San Diego's northern section.

The Piper Cherokee crashed, exploded and broke apart in a clump of trees near a golf course, killing both people aboard.

The Cessna crash-landed about three miles away in a field, leaving its occupants slightly injured. No one on the ground was injured and no structures were damaged.

John Baker, a city of San Diego paramedic, said the planes were attempting to land at Montgomery Field when the Piper Cherokee clipped the Cessna from the top with its landing gear down. The Cherokee suffered a ripped landing gear and gas tank explosion, and the Cessna's wing was sliced, Baker said.

Witnesses said the Cherokee nose-dived into trees and burst into flames. One of the burning victims was found about 30 feet from the wreckage.

The dead were identified as Stewart Hess, 35, a flight instructor, and Ernest Metzner, 47, both of San Diego.

The Cessna wobbled but managed to gain power and find an open spot close to the golf course near Admiral Baker Field, a Navy facility. The plane came to rest within a quarter of a mile of an office building and a children's playground.

One of the Cessna's occupants was treated and released from a local hospital; the other was kept overnight with a broken nose.

"They did a dead-stick landing at 40 knots on a little bit of land that is getting ready to be developed," Baker said. "They walked away. That's incredible."

The Cessna came to a halt against a rocky embankment. "They turned off the [gas] switch before they hit ground," said Bill Gookin, who saw the Cessna crash and rushed to provide assistance. "They were both very competent."

Jim Scheller, a retired Air Force pilot from Minnesota, was playing golf when he looked up about 11:30 a.m. and was horrified at the sight. "When I saw them collide, I said, 'Hey, that's not right.' "

The Cessna was making an instrument approach and the Cherokee a touch-and-go maneuver, said investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration. Each plane had an instructor and a student aboard.

Montgomery Field, in San Diego's Kearny Mesa neighborhood, is one of Southern California's busiest general aviation airfields, with parallel runways controlled by a flight tower.

Both planes had been in contact with the tower moments before the collision, said FAA investigator Jerome Pendrick. Tapes of those conversations will be a key part of the investigation, he said.

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