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3 Injured as Small Plane Crash-Lands in Fullerton

Aviation: Pilot ditches Cessna on an empty high school baseball field after engine seizes during commute from Corona to Hawthorne.

April 27, 2002|MAI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A pilot and two passengers suffered minor injuries around dawn Friday when the single-engine plane in which they were commuting from Corona to Hawthorne crash-landed on a Fullerton high school baseball field.

The incident capped a week of commuting problems across Southern California that ranged from the tragic to the merely annoying.

On Tuesday, two people were killed and 159 treated for injuries when a freight train collided head-on with a Metrolink commuter train in Placentia. And rains Wednesday and Friday contributed to some 950 freeway accidents in Los Angeles and Orange counties, including one of three fatal wrecks reported in Los Angeles County.

The storms snarled traffic around Southern California, extending many motorists' already-long drives to and from work.

It was to avoid such traffic problems that Dale Ploung began commuting from his Corona home to his job in Hawthorne by air.

On Friday, Ploung, 53, and passenger David Cymbor, 52, both of Corona, suffered minor injuries when Ploung ditched his plane on a baseball field behind Fullerton's Troy High School after reporting engine failure, police said.

Another passenger, Donna Scharf, 46, of Murietta, was hospitalized at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton with a broken left arm.

The trio have been commuting by plane for several years from Corona to Hawthorne, where they worked at Boeing and Raytheon.

A few minutes before 6 a.m. Friday, they were flying above Placentia when the engine over-revved, began to vibrate and then locked up, Ploung said.

Ploung realized he couldn't make it to Fullerton Municipal Airport and searched for a place to land, ruling out Cal State Fullerton and nearby streets jammed with morning commuters.

So he steered the single-engine Cessna Cardinal, then gliding about 85 mph at an altitude of 1,800 feet, toward the vacant baseball diamond at Troy High School.

Ploung said he aimed at a 10-foot fence to keep the plane from smashing into the yards of neighboring homes. When the plane hit the fence, it flipped over and slid 75 feet before coming to a rest upside down.

"What a way to start the day," Ploung said, his voice trembling and blood streaming down his face less than an hour after the crash. "My major concern was these homes, so I flew it into the fence."

Ploung said he has commuted by air for 20 years, and Friday was the first time he's had to crash-land.

"I feel terrible that a passenger is hurt," he said. "I always thought I could do better than that."

But Fullerton Municipal Airport Manager Rod Propst praised Ploung for his quick thinking.

"It could have been much worse," said Propst, who lives nearby and spotted Ploung's plane while watering his yard. "He made a conscious decision and was in control of the situation."

The accident occurred before classes began at Troy High and caused no disruptions. The field is used by the school's varsity baseball team, but it was scheduled to play at Sunny Hills High School on Friday.

The cause of the crash landing was under investigation.

Ploung said the engine appeared to lose oil pressure before it seized up.

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