YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Orange County

Crash Kills Pilot Near Airport

Aviation: Before hitting nose-first and exploding half a mile short of the Fullerton runway, the Cessna narrowly missed homes and businesses.


A twin-engine airplane crashed nose-first in an empty field while trying to return to the Fullerton airport Saturday, killing the pilot and narrowly missing several nearby homes.

The Cessna Skymaster had taken off from Fullerton at 12:40 p.m. and was making its way back only 20 minutes later when it appeared to lose power and slammed into the field in Buena Park, half a mile from the runway.

"It was an awful sight. . . . I could hear the engine sputtering, and sputtering really hard, and then he just starting turning and turning in a downward motion. I thought he was doing tricks at first," said Alfredo Ulloa, who was working at the airport at the time. It was the 29th crash near or at the airport since 1985, and brought the death toll to 13.

Coroner's investigators were still at the crash site late Saturday evening, trying to retrieve the pilot's remains and to determine whether he died alone. There were no deaths or injuries among those on the ground, but officials were unsure until after 9 p.m. that no one else was aboard.

The pilot was not named, pending contact with relatives, and it was not stated whether the pilot owned the plane.

Although the pilot requested permission to land shortly after takeoff, he did not report engine trouble, said Howard Plagens, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator.

Employees at the airport were watching the approaching plane and noticed that its landing gear were still up. But before they could radio this to the pilot, the plane rolled right and went into a nose dive, Plagens said.

The plummeting craft narrowly missed several businesses on Commonwealth Avenue before crashing in the field near several homes. Some witnesses wondered whether the pilot maneuvered to the spot to save lives.

"Some witnesses told us the pilot turned at the last minute and aimed at the spot," said Steve Miller, a captain with the Orange County Fire Authority.

Fred Mercado, who owns a pet store near the crash site, said the plane exploded in flames after hitting the ground, dashing all hopes of a rescue.

"There was a big boom that shook the whole building," Mercado said. "I ran outside to see if I could help, but there was just this huge fireball. I couldn't get near it. It was a huge explosion."

Because the pilot did not submit a flight plan, it was unclear whether he intended to travel to another airport or was just out for a recreational flight, officials said.

"A lot of guys will just exercise their planes, take them up, fly a pattern for fun," said Rod Propst, manager of the Fullerton airport. "If you asked me to guess, that's what I'd say."

Because the plane caught fire and was severely damaged in the crash, investigators were at first unsure whether any passengers were on the flight.

The Federal Aviation Administration and NTSB are investigating.

Residents near the Fullerton airport, on the city's west side, have long complained that air traffic there poses serious risks.

Before Saturday, the most recent crash was in April 2000, when a Beechcraft Debonair hit a power line and plunged into an unoccupied home, killing the pilot.

In November 1995, a Piper Cherokee approaching the airport in thick fog crashed into a townhouse complex, killing the pilot, a passenger and a woman in her bed.

"Somebody was very short-sighted in their planning, but what can you do?" said Julia Fowler, who lives near the 2000 crash site and questions the wisdom of having an airport amid so many homes.

Miguel Selva, 50, who lives less than a mile from the airport on Indiana Avenue, just a few hundred feet from the crash site, said he watched in horror as the plane spun to the ground, then burst into flames.

He said too many planes fly in and out of the small airport.

"And they fly too low. They fly so low they could take off the tops of the trees. They're so close you could throw rocks at them."

He said he often worries about planes crashing into his home.

"It could happen at night when I'm in bed."

Nino Cotela, 56, who lives on 7th Street, said the airport should limit the number of flights.

"I don't feel safe. They should put in more restrictions, and they should make it harder for people to get their pilot's licenses. Why do so many people have to fly?"

But Gil Jones, 40, who also lives on Indiana near the crash site, said he's not concerned about the number of plane accidents involving the airport.

"For as much as that airport is used, I don't think it's bad at all. Just the noise, it can get loud. But it doesn't bother me a bit."

Los Angeles Times Articles