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2 Killed as Plane Crashes Into Home

Pilot trying to land in dense fog nose-dives into a Mar Vista kitchen, killing himself and wife.

March 17, 2004|Richard Fausset, Joy Buchanan and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

A private pilot from Malibu who was trying to land in dense fog and cloud cover Tuesday crashed his plane into a home near the Santa Monica airport, killing himself and his wife and setting the home ablaze.

Witnesses in the Mar Vista neighborhood said they heard the plane circling perhaps three times before it clipped garages and power lines and then nose-dived into the kitchen of a home in the 3300 block of Mountain View Avenue, narrowly missing the homeowner.

James Whiting, 57, said he was walking in his living room and talking on his cellphone when he felt "an enormous shudder and crash

The accident occurred just after 5 p.m. atop Mar Vista Hill, just southeast of the airport.

Authorities said the single-engine Mooney M20 had been flying from Mammoth/Yosemite Airport to Santa Monica. Firefighters recovered the pilot's body and were searching for that of his wife. They were described as a Malibu couple in their 60s and 70s.

Federal Aviation Administration investigators have yet to determine the cause of the accident, but pilots and instrument flight instructors familiar with the airport said FAA rules prohibited landings in such poor weather and low visibility.

According to those rules, planes such as the Mooney M20 may not land at Santa Monica Municipal Airport if the cloud ceiling is lower than 500 feet above the runway.

At the time of the crash, the cloud ceiling was 200 feet above the runway, according to the airport's automated weather station.

"He should not have been there in the first place," said instrument flight instructor Ali Safai, owner of Santa Monica Aviation. "Pilots aren't supposed to cheat their way in."

Several residents saw the plane circle and crash.

Al Farhoodi, 18, a senior at Santa Monica High School, was walking on the street several houses away, listening to loud music on a portable CD player, when the noise of a plane engine drowned the sound of his headphones. He said he saw the pilot's hand banging against the cockpit window as the aircraft smashed into the stucco home.

"It was just shocking ... " Farhoodi said. "I just saw it circling around and around. It just came down and stuff. It was surreal, actually. It just exploded all over the place."

Richard Axelrod, 44, was watching TV two doors down when he heard "a plane sputtering." He went outside and saw the plane crash into Whiting's house. Axelrod said he felt the heat of the flames and saw Whiting walk out of his house, dazed, talking on his cellphone.

Mar Vista resident Tom Trapnell said he had "heard the plane go around, and it sounded lower than the usual air traffic. I walked outside and looked up and couldn't see him because of the low clouds. I heard him come around again, and again he sounded very low, but I couldn't see him. Then I heard a thud and felt an impact, like a shock wave, and I thought this is not good."

Almost immediately, he said, smoke rose from the neighborhood immediately to the west.

Firefighters battled three separate fires at the scene: airplane wreckage, which was leaking fuel; the home; and flaming debris that had fallen on a Volkswagen van in an adjacent driveway. "It was pretty chaotic," said firefighter Don Bapiste. "Neighbors were frantic."

Inside the house, walls were blackened, and insulation, airplane fuel and fire retardant foam covered the floor. Outside, the side of the house was peeled back, and a wing from the plane, split in half, hung over the fence.

FAA spokesman Donn Walker said that near the end of the flight, the pilot had communicated with the approach control facility in San Diego, which had cleared him for approach at Santa Monica. The pilot was told to call the control tower at Santa Monica to be cleared for landing. He never radioed Santa Monica, Walker said. The plane disappeared from radar and crashed a half mile from the runway.

Richard Arroyo, a private pilot, was waiting to get onto the runway to begin his weekly flight to Phoenix. Arroyo, 60, said he was waiting for permission to take off (FAA regulations do not prohibit takeoffs in low visibility) when he overheard the pilot's conversation with controllers in San Diego.

"He seemed disoriented," Arroyo said. Then there was a long lapse in communication, he said.

"The tower called the plane, but there was no response," he said. "When he called four or five times with no response, it was obvious the plane went down."

Arroyo canceled his flight.

"It was a little too unsettling for me," he said.

Times staff writers Cynthia Daniels, Regine Labossiere and Richard O'Reilly contributed to this report.

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