Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 26, 2010

Witness saw plane 'suddenly appear from the fog'

Fatal flight from Palo Alto Airport hit main power line and tower and wires, government report says

by Sue Dremann

The Cessna 310R that crashed in pieces in an East Palo Alto neighborhood last week flew in at a level or slightly nose-up position at a low altitude until it struck power lines and a high-tension electrical tower, according to a preliminary report released Wednesday night by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Multiple witnesses living near the accident site reported observing portions of the accident sequence.

One witness, who was walking on a levee near the crash site, said she saw an airplane "suddenly appear from the fog" to her left. She said she continued to watch the airplane fly from her left to her right at a low altitude until it hit power lines, according to the report.

Parts of the Cessna, piloted by Doug Bourn, a senior electrical engineer with Tesla Motors, crashed into several homes and the ground following the collision with the power lines and tower, the report noted.

Bourn, a licensed commercial pilot, and his two passengers, Andrew Ingram and Brian Finn, also Tesla employees, were flying to Hawthorne, Calif., for a meeting. All three men were killed. The airplane was registered to Air Unique, Inc., of Santa Clara, and piloted by Bourn as a personal flight.

"Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed and an instrument flight plan was filed for the cross-country flight," the NTSB report said.

"Examination of the accident site revealed that the airplane struck power lines and a power line tower about 50 feet above ground level. Various portions of wreckage debris, power lines, and power-line tower structure were scattered throughout the wreckage debris path," according to the report.

The southwesterly debris path measured approximately 900 feet from the tower and wires to where the main fuselage of the plane came to rest in front of a residence on Beech Street. In total, a post-crash fire and wreckage debris damaged four homes and at least five vehicles.

All major structural parts of the airplane were located and are being studied by NTSB investigators. A fuel-laden wing, believed to have been severed by hitting the power lines or tower, crashed into a home housing a day care center and burst into flames, but all of the seven persons there escaped unhurt.

The plane's engine, landing gear and part of the fuselage destroyed a carport and the car in it, and the engine continued on, smashing the side of a garage and winding up inside the garage.

Joshua Cawthra, the NTSB lead aviation accident investigator, said a final report to determine the exact cause of the crash would take six months to a year.

"The process is very time consuming. It depends on where the investigation leads us. If it's mechanical failure we have to dig deeper as to why there was a failure," he said.

Cawthra said whether the plane impacted with the tower or wires first isn't known at this point.

"We may never know. It was pretty instantaneous," he said.

No flight recorder was required on the plane and the airport control tower did not receive any distress calls prior to the crash, Cawthra said. Investigators are examining five audio recordings of the crash picked up by East Palo Alto Police Department's ShotSpotter gun-shot detection system, however.

The recordings picked up 11 seconds of the accident, which included the sound of the plane's engines just prior to the crash, the impact into the wires and tower and subsequent impacts with homes and the street, according to police. It is the first time in aviation history that such a recording will be used for forensic purposes, Cawthra said.

ShotSpotter filters sounds to separate gun shots from other noise and then reports the gunfire and location to police. The system automatically classified the crash as loud and impulsive but not gunfire and did not report the incident in real time to the East Palo Alto Police dispatch. But company employees realized the information was cached after learning of the crash and provided the audio recording to police, said James Bedlock, company president.

Memorial services for the three men are pending. Finn is to be eulogized in DeKalb Area Retirement Center Oakcrest Chapel in DeKalb, Ill., and a memorial service is planned for Bourn on Feb. 27. Ingram's family said they plan to hold a memorial service sometime this summer.

To honor the three victims, East Palo Alto residents on Beech Street built a small shrine at the crash site out of bricks and plywood and adorned it with flowers, candles, stuffed animals and several fragments of the plane.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com. Editorial Intern Martin Sanchez contributed to this story.

Comments

Posted by Ferdinand, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2010 at 8:35 am

"cross-country flight" ? I thought they were headed to LA - well SoCal can feel like another country!

Do general aviation aircraft use any recording devices like the airliner's black box?

Does Palo Alto Airport's air traffic control have a recording of the pilot to tower communications? I would think the tower radar would show they were too low and on the wrong flight path.


Posted by petercarp, a resident of Atherton
on Feb 25, 2010 at 8:50 am

petercarp is a registered user.

"cros-country" is aviation speak for any flight which departs from one airport and goes to another airport - as opposed to staying in the vicinity of the originating airport.

General aviation aircraft of less than 12,500 pounds do not usually carry black box devices.

Tower to plane communications are recorded and there was no transmission from the aircraft after it was cleared to begin its takeoff run.

Radar coverage in the Palo Alto area is provided by a a radar located about 30 miles away and the entire flight of this aircraft was below that radar's coverage.


Posted by John Galt, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 25, 2010 at 10:59 am

Thanks petercarp, good explanation.
I'd like to add a comment about the importance of Airports such as Palo Alto, San Carlos, and Reid Hillview, etc., for those who mock them as "Rich Man's" playgrounds, paid for by the local taxpayers for the "Hobbyist's" private pleasure.
In any disaster, such as the recent Haitian earthquake, (we too are in a major fault zone), the only way in for rapid relief is via the airports. The lack thereof in Haiti strangled the efforts to provide even the simplest aid. A major earthquake could leave the Bay Area devastated, roads impassible, power lines down, water lines broken, gas lines broken, and wide spread destruction. There isn't even a port any more to provide water access.
The ONLY way to bring in relief and evacuate the injured would be through our air port.
At least give this some thought before it is too late.


Posted by Flying-In Small-Planes-A'int-Safe, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 25, 2010 at 11:18 am

> General aviation aircraft of less than 12,500 pounds do not
> usually carry black box devices.

But it is clear from the devastation that a one/two/three airplane collision over a very dense urban setting like EPA/PA/Stanford .. that every bit of information should be recorded so that these kinds of accidents could be investigated and probed more quickly than is currently the case.

Certainly having the pilot's voice, and maybe any other talking/noise/etc. would be helpful to the investigators. The NTSB agent admitted that the EPA gunshot locators might be helpful to better understand the condition of the engines during the last, FATAL, seconds of this plane's descent into a residential area.

> Tower to plane communications are recorded and there was
> no transmission from the aircraft after it was cleared to
> begin its takeoff run.

This is nice to know, but did this information come from "insiders", or from the Press, so that all of the public might know this fact?

It would be nice if the FAA were to post these recordings (from all crashes) to a web-site on crashes, so that everyone could hear just how helpless a pilot is when his/her plane becomes out of control.


Posted by Flying-In Small-Planes-A'int-Safe, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 25, 2010 at 11:33 am

> In any disaster, such as the recent Haitian earthquake, (we too are
> in a major fault zone), the only way in for rapid relief is via
> the airports

And just how much air "relief" did Palo Alto get during the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989? How much did general aviation contribute to removing the debris and dead from the Cypress Extension that killed upwards of 55 people?

What happens during a 10-50 megaton atomic blast, with Palo Alto/Stanford being the center of the bomb's "radius of death"? What happens when Al Gore's fantasy "sea level rise" brings 30-40 feet of Bay onto the Palo Alto Airport .. where are the small planes going to land?

What about maybe an outbreak of the "Son of the Spanish Flu", that killed maybe 20M people right around the end of WWI? Do you really think that Atherton/Portola Valley/Los Altos Hills CEOs will be flying in medical supplies, or perhaps flying out the dead to remote mortuaries? Do you really believe ..?

Sorry .. while the supporters of this small, money-losing airport (it always has been a money loser) can make all sorts of claims about the "benefits" of this airport .. let's actually come up with some realistic disasters, and see just who is going to stick around and put his life/aircraft in danger. Keep in mind that Moffett is just a few miles to the south, and if things got really tough, the "authorities" could close down segments of Highway 101 and 280 for small planes to land/takeoff. It would not be that hard to route traffic onto the frontage roads during these emergency highway "close downs". The military has small, portable air control centers which could be flown in, if necessary, to manage air traffic at any of a hundred locations in the Silicon Valley that could be shut down to normal vehicular traffic in order to provide whatever these small planes might deliver, if anything.

Oh .. and the Bay Area is not Haiti .. the situations are just not comparable.



All claims of how "important" the Palo Alto Airport would be in times of emergencies just has not borne out over the 80+ years of the airport's existence. In fact, during the two levee breaks before the County of Santa Clara took over the site, the planes were moved to higher ground at Moffett Field, and didn't make any effort to be available to rescue Palo Altans from any greater flooding.


Posted by Rob Tanner, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 25, 2010 at 11:45 am

@Flying-In Small-Planes-A'int-Safe says: "But it is clear from the devastation that a one/two/three airplane collision over a very dense urban setting like EPA/PA/Stanford."

Please list your source for midair collisions which have occurred over EPA/PA/Stanford. In the ~75 years of airport(s) in Palo Alto, I am unaware of a single instance of this happening. The NTSB database, which dates back to 1982, has no listings of any midair collisions taking place over Palo Alto, EPA, or Stanford.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Rob Tanner, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 25, 2010 at 11:51 am

@Flying-In Small-Planes-A'int-Safe says: "What happens when Al Gore's fantasy "sea level rise" brings 30-40 feet of Bay onto the Palo Alto Airport"

Sorry, dude, with inane comments like this you have lost all credibility with those of us above a 50 IQ. Let's see: don't believe in global warming (you call it a "fantasy"), don't believe in aviation, don't think there's a chance for the PA area to have an emergency in which airlift capability is important.


Posted by Don Mackenzie, a resident of another community
on Feb 25, 2010 at 12:02 pm

If you want to hear the recording for yourself, it is pretty easy to make a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) on the FAA's web site. Specify that you want the recording from the Palo Alto tower and the date/time window you want. I did this once and got a CD by certified mail with the recording in a couple of weeks. It may have cost a few dollars, but not unreasonable.

(I'm a pilot who flies out of Palo Alto. I'm not rich. I'm a computer programmer. I rent a plane when I want/need to go somewhere, like to Medford to take care of my 98-year-old mother's affairs.)


Posted by Flying-In Small-Planes-A'int-Safe, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 25, 2010 at 12:21 pm

> Please list your source for midair collisions which have
> occurred over EPA/PA/Stanford.

The list of accidents over the PAO is a matter of public record. There have been none. However, we are talking about the future. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Flying-In Small-Planes-A'int-Safe, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 25, 2010 at 12:38 pm

> don't believe in Global Warming ..

Well .. with all of the scandals associated with ClimateGate .. the whole scam is coming unraveled, as this UK newspaper article documents a suit to get Al Gore's film out of the UK schools:

Web Link

Additionally, the MET (UK Weather Service) has agreed to review all of its weather data for the last 150 years, or so, after the mess caused by some of its less-than-honest "climate researchers".

MET To Reexamine 160 Years of Weather Data:
Web Link

Climategate -- UK Met Office Manipulated Russia's Weather Data to Show Trend:
Web Link


> don't believe in aviation,

Didn't say that .. but it's not surprising that you didn't understand what was written. As a former military officer, military aviation was absolutly neccessary for missions/exercices during my tour to be successful. However, it was very unsafe. Over 5,000 helocopters were either shot down, or crashed for other reasons, during the Viet Nam War. Have actually be told that helocopters can not crash because of "auto-gyration".

> don't think there's a chance for the PA area to have
> an emergency in which airlift capability is important.

Moffett Field, and/or the whole Silicon Valley road system becomes a emergency/temporary airstrip .. so there are clear alternatives to this tiny, money-losing operation for "relief" if it comes to that. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]



Posted by Flying-In Small-Planes-A'int-Safe, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 25, 2010 at 12:43 pm

> If you want to hear the recording for yourself, it is pretty easy
> to make a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) on the FAA's web
> site. Specify that you want the recording from the Palo Alto
> tower and the date/time window you want

Thanks for the suggestion. My experience with FOIAs and the Palo Alto Airport has been most frustrating. However, my point still stands .. the public has a right to hear these records, and they should be part of a "public package" that the FAA manages so that the non-flying public and taxpayers can understand what is going on during a crash.


Posted by petercarp, a resident of Atherton
on Feb 25, 2010 at 1:23 pm

petercarp is a registered user.

The NTSB report that the plane was in a level or slight climb at low altitude until it struck high-tension power lines and a transmission tower and that the wreckage debris path was measured on a southwesterly heading suggest, but does NOT prove, that the pilot was still in control, i.e. not incapacitated, and that the plane was on a heading approximately 180 degrees from the 060 heading required within one mile of takeoff by his IFR departure clearance. The very fortunate capture of the aircraft sounds by the ShotSpotter system SUGGEST, by does NOT prove, that both engines were operating.

The final NTSB report will hopefully provide some answers as to why the pilot turned 180 degrees from his intended course.


Posted by Paul, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 25, 2010 at 2:28 pm

"...the only way in for rapid relief [after an earthquake] is via the airports. A major earthquake could leave the Bay Area devastated, roads impassible...The ONLY way to bring in relief and evacuate the injured would be through our air port."

This posting neatly refutes its own flawed premise. If an earthquake leaves roads impassible, why should we expect the the PAO runway, which sits on notoriously unstable bay mud, to still be usable?


Posted by gerald, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 25, 2010 at 3:32 pm

I know it's been already commented upon, but it's just too much fun to highlight the absurdity of the totally dishonest claim about the airport-as-savior-in-case-of-a major-earthquake:If Bay Area roads are devastated by a major earthquake, the PAO single runway will buckle as well, and the airport will become just another parking lot. The same would happen in the event of major flooding. And while the airport aficionados fantasize about imaginary daring relief&rescue operations from this tiny airport(you guys have been watching too many Bruce Willis flicks), it's losing buckets of money during an extremely severe recession, when Palo Alto's tax base is rapidly shrinking.


Posted by Ms Resident, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 27, 2010 at 11:28 pm

I feel sad that life was lost, that children saw dead people on the ground, that several East Palo Alto residents lost their homes or cars which they use for income. I am sad that hundreds of complaints from EPA residents have gone to deaf ears. Palo Alto and Santa Clara County staff who manage the airport have kept compliants from getting to the media and to Palo Alto oficials. I am one who has complained that flagrant disregard is used by local pilots when flying from Palo Alto.

Its not unusal that our homes or schools and city are "buzzed" frequently by the planes who "bank left" all the time when they are not suppose to. All summer on Saturyday and Sunday's no one is responsible for crappy flights over our city. They would never dream of flying over PA like that and the complaints would be immediately responded to.

This is not the only time this has happened. A plane landed on the bank of the creek very close to where this happened just a few years ago. No one wants to claims this fact. Bottomline we are tired of the airport and be damn if it will continue. We have a right to have a safe city. To hell with the need to have a location for emergencies. Oh please. Palo Alto Aiport Has Got To Go!


Posted by Cessna172pilot, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Feb 28, 2010 at 5:17 am

Ms. Resident, if a few pilots are not following the recommended noise/exposure abatement traffic patterns, then they should be educated and reminded to do so. If you work with the local aviation community instead of you and so many others adapting this absolute "close the airport" stance, you will find that you can accomplish minimizing overflight of your area while keeping the airport available to those who require its use and as an asset to the community. I doubt that most people would "buzz" your house. There are minimum altitudes required by the FAA over populated areas. If you choose to live near an airport, some traffic exposure is going to occur, correct? Airplanes have to descend to a low altitude in order to land as they must rise from a low altitude in order to depart. Pilots are willing to minimize this exposure but you too have to compromise and accept that some traffic will be in the area.


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