As rescue crews on Friday discovered the bodies of three people in the wreckage of an Orange County-based tour airplane that crashed in the rain on a remote Catalina Island hilltop, questions emerged about the pilot's qualifications to handle charter flights.
A search-and-rescue team found the burned bodies after a helicopter spotted the downed plane on a hilltop area near Mt. Orizaba, southwest of Catalina's Airport in the Sky, said Sgt. John Hudson of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Avalon Station.
Although the victims have not been officially identified, they are believed to be pilot Mark Hogland, 48, president of a Dana Point charter flight company, and two passengers, according to U.S. Coast Guard officials.
Authorities said that the passengers apparently were tourists.
"There were no survivors," Hudson said.
Hogland flew the fixed-wing Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft out of Orange County's John Wayne Airport at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
He took off from the island at 4:50 p.m. that day and was expected to return to John Wayne at 5:10 p.m.
The Coast Guard and law enforcement officials began searching Catalina and nearby waters with patrol boats and aircraft after Hogland's fiancee reported that she had not heard from him.
The passengers, a man and a woman, were out-of-state visitors staying at the Ritz-Carlton resort in Dana Point, but their identities had not been released pending family notification, said Orange County Sheriff's Department spokesman Jim Amormino.
It was raining and cloudy when the plane took off from the island, making weather and poor visibility probable factors in the crash.
Catalina's tiny airport is a narrow, single landing strip on a remote hilltop with precipitous drop-offs; some pilots compare it to landing on an aircraft carrier.
In the last decade, 20 people have died in eight plane crashes coming in or out of Airport in the Sky, including the three killed in Thursday's incident. Before that wreck, the most recent was just over three months ago, when three people were killed in a crash off the end of the runway.
Aviation experts said they did not consider the airfield a safety problem because few of the accidents over the years have occurred close to the runway, and many have taken place over water.
"It's not a lot of accidents," said Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. "You're looking at fewer than one fatal accident per year at an airport that sees more than 10,000 flights every year."
Fred Fourcher, president of the Orange County Pilots Assn., of which Hogland was a member, said he has flown in and out of the airport many times, adding that "I haven't found anything that tells me that Catalina is a dangerous airport."
Still, he said the runway's hilltop location can be "optically intimidating."
As details about the crash were released, questions emerged about the pilot's qualifications to fly a charter flight.
According to the SkyBlue USA websiteHogland's company offers sightseeing tours along "Southern California's beautiful coastline, Catalina Island and other scenic locations."
But he was not licensed to conduct charter flights, Federal Aviation Administration records show.
He earned his private pilot's license Sept. 7, 2001, but that did not qualify him for commercial flights such as sightseeing tours.
More recently, on Aug. 20, Hogland obtained his instrument rating, FAA records show, allowing him to fly during bad weather by navigating with just instruments rather than visually.
The 1983 fixed-wing, single-engine plane was the company's only aircraft, according to FAA records, and had been used for charter flights.
Hogland left for Catalina with the two passengers aboard, though it is unclear whether they paid for the trip, sheriff's officials said.
"We believe that it's a charter flight and that they were tourists, but we can't know that for a fact," Hudson said. "The man who was flying the plane was in the business of doing that."
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor declined to comment on the crash specifically but said, "Looking at pilot qualifications [is] a part of every FAA active investigation."
Sheriff's officials were investigating the crash with the National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA and the L.A. County coroner's office, which is working to identify the victims.