The National Transportation Board investigator looking into this week's crash of a Cessna 152 at John Wayne Airport said Thursday that the control tower told the pilot about a 757 nearby, and that the student pilot acknowledged it.
This means David Heller presumably was aware of the wake turbulence from the American Airlines jet that could throw his plane out of control if he got too close. But investigator Richard Parker, who was examining the crumbled Cessna on Thursday at Compton Airport, where it had been towed, cautioned that he is still gathering information. It will be about six months before the NTSB reviews the evidence and makes a ruling on the cause of the fatal crash, he said.
The day of the crash, Parker said the small plane's flip and fall were consistent with an encounter with wind turbulence. Planes create these "horizontal tornadoes" as they pass through the air. Generally, the bigger the plane, the more violent the turbulence.
Following two crashes resulting from wake turbulence that killed 13 people, the Federal Aviation Administration two years ago increased the distance a small plane must stay behind a 757 from four to five nautical miles. One of the crashes occurred in Santa Ana; among the five people killed were two executives of the In-N-Out Burger chain.
Heller, who was practicing landings and takeoffs, was just 100 feet from the ground when his rented plane overturned and fell. Wake turbulence is more dangerous near the ground because the pilot has less room to recover. The 757 had landed a few minutes earlier.
Heller was flying solo; his instructor was on the ground.
Parker said the control tower was moderately busy when the plane crashed shortly after 5 p.m., but that the amount of traffic was not uncommon at John Wayne.
An employee at Sunrise Aviation, where Heller took lessons, said students are taught early how to deal with wake turbulence. Heller, 49, who lived in Laguna Hills, was close to receiving his pilot's license.