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Feds investigate crash

Crowded skies and bright sun may have played a role in the midair accident that killed 5 people Sunday.

January 22, 2008|Dan Weikel, David Kelly and David Haldane | Times Staff Writers

Federal investigators are trying to determine how the pilots of two small planes failed to see each other before colliding over Corona on a clear Sunday afternoon, leaving five dead and showering wreckage over a busy auto mall.

Veteran pilots said the skies above Corona and the Inland Empire are typically congested on weekends, often with student pilots and instructors, and the local airport has no air traffic control tower -- meaning those in the sky must be vigilant and look out for other airplanes.

Patrick Crask, 41, who routinely flies out of Corona, said he had planned a flight Sunday but decided against it because the sun was so bright he worried about visibility on takeoff.

"The sun can often be almost unbearable," the Corona resident said. "If you were to come here at around 4 p.m., the sun is blinding for a good two minutes. You need to take extra precautions."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, January 29, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Airplane crash: A Jan. 22 article in the California section about a fatal, midair collision said that the Corona Municipal Airport has two runways. The airport has one runway.

Inspectors with the National Transportation Safety Board said they were investigating whether the afternoon sun played a role in the 3:35 p.m. collision.

Both of the planes -- a Cessna 172 and a Cessna 150 -- appeared to have sustained damage to their midsections, and the wings of one plane ripped off, ejecting both pilot and passenger. Authorities said that two people aboard each plane died in the crash and that a fifth person, a man sitting in an office at a Chevrolet dealership, was killed when debris slammed through the building's roof.

The two Cessnas collided about a mile from the small Corona Municipal Airport, just north of the Riverside Freeway, said Wayne Pollack, an NTSB investigator.

Debris scattered as far as 1,000 yards from the main crash site, and the fuselage of one plane landed on a parked car. Corona police said one bystander sprained his wrist while fleeing a building that was hit by wreckage.

Both pilots in Sunday's crash were licensed and had experience navigating the skies around Corona, according to the owner of one of the planes.

The Riverside County Coroner's Office identified the victims as pilot Paul Luther Carlson, 73, and his passenger, Scott Gayle Lawrence, 55, both of Cerritos; pilot Anthony Joel Guzman, 20, of Yorba Linda; Brandon William Johnson, 24, of Costa Mesa; and Earl Smiddy, 58, of Moreno Valley .

Carlson, a former Air Force Reserve helicopter pilot and retired aerospace engineer, had taken Lawrence, his neighbor, for a ride in his single-engine plane.

"Paul would often take people up with him, to keep his flight status current, and Scott had a yearning to fly," said neighbor Richard Burlew, 65. "I guess this just happened to be the first time Scott went up there with him."

Before retiring from the Air Force, Burlew said, Carlson would often fly over the block during neighborhood parties. "He'd be flying in from a mission for the reserves to Los Alamitos and he'd come over the top of us, bend the wings and say hello before he landed."

The other pilot, Guzman, was a student in the commercial pilot program at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut. He was flying Sunday to build up his hours.

"He's been flying since he was 16," said his sister Emily Guzman, 18. "He was just out practicing."

His aunt, Melissa McIntyre of La Verne, described Guzman as someone who "loved living" and always had plans. "He was just one of the guys who wants to have fun. He loved being outside, loved snowboarding, loved skiing. He was always going somewhere to fly on the weekends."

The Cessna 172 is owned by William A. Reinke of La Habra, who operates a flight school and rents out aircraft. He said he knew both pilots and one of the passengers.

The Cessna 150 is registered to Air Corona Inc., based in Dover, Del. Many plane owners register their aircraft in Delaware even if they are not based there because of the state's low taxes.

Authorities said Monday that they hoped to have the debris cleared this morning when about 15 businesses in the area around Wardlow Road and South Auto Center Drive are scheduled to reopen.

A lack of air traffic control is common for small airports like Corona Municipal, which has two runways but no tower. There are about 200 flights a day out of the airport.

Because the airport is uncontrolled, pilots flying in the area commonly take the precaution of announcing their presence and intentions over the radio, especially landings and departures. Such communications are not required.

Investigators said neither pilot in Sunday's crash put out such a radio communication. They added that the Federal Aviation Administration is continuing to analyze aircraft radio transmissions from the area Sunday.

"It's a good, safe little airport, but I'd like to see it with a tower because a lot of people fly in there for lunch and to refuel," said Thomas Polley, a veteran pilot and flight instructor at Duke's Flying Club, based out of the nearby Chino Airport.

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