Tuesday, January 22, 2008
After midair crash, safety around towerless airport questioned
Corona Mayor Jim Miller announced plans to create an air-safety task force Monday, a day after a midair collision near the city's municipal airport left five people dead and showered area businesses with debris and bodies.
As federal investigators began piecing together how and why the two Cessna aircrafts slammed into each other at 3:35 p.m. Sunday near Auto Center Drive and Highway 91, some pilots and residents began questioning air traffic safety near the airport.
Sunday's accident was the third midair collision near the airport in 10 years, and the second fatal accident of its kind in that time span. Three people died in a 1998 midair collision.
"We still don't know if this accident was related to our airport, but we want the pilots, the FAA and the local businesses to have a chance to work together and discuss their concerns through the task force," said Miller, who said he plans to seek Corona City Council approval for the air-traffic safety panel next month.
"Foremost at this point, we at the city extend our sympathies and condolences to the families and individuals involved. It's really an unfortunate tragedy," Miller said.
Paul Luther Carlson, 73, of Cerritos, Brandon William Johnson, 24, of Costa Mesa, Anthony Joel Guzman, 20, of Hesperia, and Scott Gayle Lawrence, 55, of Cerritos, died in the crash of the two airplanes, authorities said.
Earl Smiddy, 58, Moreno Valley, died when pieces of one of the airplanes crashed through the roof of the Corona Chevrolet dealership on Wardlow Road. Smiddy, the dealership's longest-serving employee, died at his desk. Smiddy, said to be a lover of cats, lived alone in a quiet cul-de-sac. Neighbors described him as friendly.
A picture of how the two planes hit each other began to emerge Monday as investigators led by the National Transportation Safety Board combed through the debris. Many details still remained unclear. The crash scattered debris over an area about 300 yards in radius and shut down auto dealerships and other businesses in the area. The businesses were expected to reopen by today.
One of the two planes was either inbound to or outbound from the Corona airport while the other was nearing the airport, said Wayne Pollack, the lead National Transportation Safety Board investigator at the crash site.
The two airplanes were in level flight and neither tried to maneuver out of the way at the time of the crash, he said.
Pollack said the impact happened in the midsection of one of the airplanes, ripping off both wings of a Cessna 150 and ejecting two people, whose bodies crashed to the ground below. He said the two were certified pilots.
The occupants of the other plane, a Cessna 172, were not ejected and were found in the wreckage. Pollack did not discuss the victims and said he did not know which of the victims were in the airplanes.
The NTSB was expected to complete the fact-finding phase of the investigation Monday night.
The wreckage then will be taken to Palmdale where the investigation will continue, Pollack said. A preliminary report is expected next week.
Pollack said he did not know where the airplanes were going, but a witness told investigators one of the Cessnas was flying east and the other flying north.
Chuck Leonard, a retired NTSB investigator not involved in the current probe, said the inquiry will likely tap radio communications and any available data from nearby radar stations.
Officials then will reassemble the airplanes piece by piece and look at crash marks, scratches and the transfer of paint to see how they collided, said Leonard, who led more than 200 such investigations, from small aircraft to commercial jetliners, before retiring from the NTSB in 1996.
While details will vary, Leonard said midair collisions between small airplanes generally have a common thread.
"The failure of the pilots to see and be seen," said Leonard, who teaches aviation accident investigation at USC.
In a telephone interview from his New Jersey home, Leonard said pilots can avoid collisions by following standard rules and vigilantly looking outside the cockpit.
"Too often pilots tend to focus too much inside the cockpit," he said. "We always preach, 'Keep your head on the swivel.' "
'Not Another Plane Crash'
The Corona Municipal Airport has about 50,000 to 64,000 planes taking off and landing each year. Like most municipal airports across the country, it does not have a dedicated air-traffic control tower to prevent airplanes from hitting each other.
Kay Pierson lives on Rancho Corona Drive, about a half-mile from where the debris fell Sunday and a half-mile from where debris fell from the 1998 collision.
"The first thing I thought was 'not again,' " she said. "Not another plane crash."
With the airport so close, employees at Corona Nissan said the thought of a plane crashing into the dealership was always in the back of their minds.
"There's always 'what if,' " said Lewis Cervantes, a mechanic at the dealership where some debris landed.
Patrick Crask, 41, of Corona, said weekends at the airport are often crowded, increasing the chances for collisions. On one recent weekend, Crask said he spotted seven airplanes in the airport's flight pattern.
Crask, a pilot, said he would like to see an air-traffic control tower at the airport to coordinate flights and clear radio congestion.
Jack Chappell, a Riverside resident who flies a plane out of Corona, said the potential for midair collisions exists every day.
"When you're at a noncontrolled environment your head needs to be on a swivel all the time," Chappell said. "They don't look around. They seem to think they're the only ones in the air. It's not true."
Not Many Control Towers
But other local pilots and experts said Monday that midair collisions are not on the rise and safety is not generally a problem at airports without an air-traffic control tower.
Only about 525 of the nation's approximately 5,200 public-use airports, such as Corona municipal, have air-traffic control towers, said Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Frederick, Md.-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which has more than 414,000 members.
At least two of the Inland area's 11 public-use airports, Riverside municipal and Chino, have control towers.
Control towers are prohibitively expensive to build and staff at public-use airports without enough traffic volume, Dancy said.
At airports without control towers, pilots communicate on a common radio frequency, in essence doing their own air traffic control, Dancy said. That generally works extremely well, he said.
The number of accidents has steadily declined from about 14 per 100,000 flight hours in 1975 to seven per 100,000 flight hours in 2005, according to the National Transportation Safety Board statistics.
'Announce Your Position'
Corona-based pilots said Monday that the airport is safe.
"It's one of the safest airports I've ever operated in," said Corona resident Nick Nicolay, a former Goodyear blimp pilot who has a plane at the airport.
"The only factor here is you've got to look around. You have to announce your position (on the radio), which is standard procedure here."
Still, the Corona area has seen its share of midair collisions and other crashes that have left at least 10 people dead in the past decade.
In December 2005, a Boeing Stearman collided with a Cessna 172A while both were attempting to land at the Corona airport. No one was injured, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
A March 1998 collision between a Cessna 310KH and a Cessna 152 above the city left three people dead and sent debris into a home and condominium complex below.
In November 1986, two planes collided as they approached the airport's runway. Two people were seriously injured in the accident, records show. The pilots failed to follow proper visual flight rules, records show.
Two Cessnas took off from the Corona airport on a day in June 1982 when the visibility was poor. About a mile from the airport, the two planes hit each other, killing four people, federal records show. The pilots did not keep a proper lookout, records stated.