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CALIFORNIA

Plane low on fuel before crash

Pilot was diverting to John Wayne Airport when he went down in Newport Beach, killing the 3 aboard.

November 23, 2010|Mike Reicher

After five days of surfing and Mexican food, the three buddies were flying home to the South Bay from Scorpion Bay, the world-class surf break on the Baja Peninsula.

They had eaten a roasted pig with other travelers, watched an off-road truck race and enjoyed the sun. But on the last leg of their journey home, the trip took a tragic turn.

Veteran pilot and surfer Chuck Chambers radioed air traffic controllers that he was diverting his four-seat plane to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana because it was low on fuel.

He never made it.

Chambers, 58, a Palos Verdes Estates real estate broker, and his two friends -- Russell Urban, 63, and Sean Kelly, 44 -- were killed Sunday night when their single-engine Beechcraft Musketeer crashed into the Back Bay, an ecological preserve in the heart of Newport Beach. Federal investigators Monday were examining the wreckage to determine what caused the accident.

"Nothing has ever happened before," said Judy Urban, who said her husband was a retired schoolteacher. "He always complimented his friend, the pilot, because he was meticulous. That would make me feel comfortable."

Whereas previous trips to Mexico had been mixed with charity work, this one was pure fun. They had watched the Baja 1000 off-road race and ridden the waves at Scorpion Bay, nearly 800 miles south of Tijuana.

"He had been a Baja lover since he was 16. It was his passion," said Chambers' widow, Leslie.

"They are older, established men, and they still have that love of surfing," she added.

On Sunday morning, the three men started on their trip home after stopping to refuel in San Felipe, said Leslie Chambers.

Her husband left an upbeat voice message saying that they would be home before 5 p.m., she said.

They made an intermediate stop in Calexico, a California border town south of the Salton Sea, but it was unclear if they refueled then, Leslie Chambers said.

National Transportation Safety Board lead investigator Wayne Pollack said he found "minimal fuel" in the engine compartment, but stopped short of saying whether the plane had run out of fuel.

The pilot called the tower at John Wayne to warn that it was running low on fuel, said airport spokeswoman Jenny Wedge. The airport is less than five miles from the site of the crash.

The plane, built in 1968 was pulled from a mud flat in the Back Bay on Monday afternoon as the U.S. Coast Guard worked to control any contaminants released into the sensitive Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve.

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mike.reicher@latimes.com

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