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Veteran Pilot's Fatal Nose-Dive Perplexes Family and Officials

Aviation: Aerospace consultant, who worked with FAA, had 40 years of flying experience.

January 08, 2002|KIMI YOSHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There were no last-minute distress calls. No emergency signals. Nothing, say investigators and airport officials, that might explain why experienced pilot Don Dirian's plane spiraled and crashed nose first into a field near Fullerton Municipal Airport.

And with very little left of his burned-up Cessna 337 Skymaster, investigators were starting their work probing Saturday's midday crash with few clues.

On Monday, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Howard Plagens began the paper trail: sifting through airplane certification records, pilot certification records, medical records, maintenance records, a history on the plane model--anything to help determine what happened.

He has no preliminary theories. "It's way too early to even look at any of that," Plagens said.

Dirian's relatives said Monday they were equally perplexed. Dirian, 69, had no serious medical problems. He was a pilot with 40 years experience and meticulous with maintenance and safety.

Even his job--an aerospace consultant and a designated engineer representative for the Federal Aviation Administration--meant that Dirian knew the ins and outs of his plane. In his work with the FAA, Dirian was authorized to develop modifications or repair instructions for engineering problems related to aircraft, FAA spokesman Jerry Snyder said.

"I flew with him a lot, and he was the only person I would fly with," said Dirian's daughter, Louise Dirian Loun, 40.

On Saturday, Dirian left his Whittier home for a weekend ritual--heading to his office at Fullerton Municipal Airport to feed his saltwater fish. He also went out for a flight.

"It was a beautiful day, and he loved to fly," said another daughter, Nancy Wigner, 36.

It was a calm day, no winds, and when he requested permission to land Saturday just 15 or 20 minutes after his departure, he was given the OK to land on runway 6.

After air traffic controllers cleared him, they noticed his landing gear was still up, airport manager Rod Propst said. They warned him, and within seconds, they witnessed him abruptly roll right and head for the ground at 12:40 p.m.

The twin-engine plane narrowly missed businesses and houses in nearby Buena Park before crashing and exploding in a vacant lot half a mile short of the runway.

"I can tell you, unequivocally, the plane stalled and then went into a vertical attitude," Propst said. "It could have been a mechanical problem. It could have been a human factors issue--[from] a catastrophic medical event to pilot error."

Plagens hopes to file a preliminary report by week's end. He also will investigate the wreckage.

Dirian's family, meanwhile, was fielding calls from his friends and colleagues Monday, and finalizing plans for a memorial service, now scheduled for Jan. 14 in Whittier.

They talked of good times: a clam boil in September to celebrate the Dirians' 45th wedding anniversary; a vacation in Hawaii; the way he'd sit in his recliner, poring over aviation magazines and books; and his love for the two family cats, Lizzie and Bubbles.

"Even his cats looked forward to him coming home," Dirian Loun said. "They'd sit in his chair when he was gone, and he'd say to them when he walked in the house, 'All right, the good times are over.' "

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