Before a twin-engine airplane nose-dived into a suburb in San Diego, California, an increasingly concerned air traffic controller told the pilot more than a half-dozen times that he needed to gain altitude, a recording that is to be among the evidence examined by US federal investigators who arrived on Tuesday at the crash scene.
The Cessna 340 smashed into a UPS van, killing the driver, and then hit two houses just after noon on Monday in Santee, a suburb with a population of 50,000 people east of San Diego.
The pilot, Sugata Das, died and an elderly couple sustained burns when their home went up in flames.
No one was inside at the second residence when the crash occurred.
Former US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator Al Diehl said that the recording between air traffic control and Das indicates that he was trying to deal with a major distraction or significant emergency on his own, breaking a basic rule that aviators should always tell controllers everything.
“The first thing you do when you’re in trouble is call, climb and confess — and he did not do any of the three,” Diehl said. “These are very basic rules that flight instructors tell their students.”
Diehl, who helped design a Cessna cockpit, said that the twin-engine aircraft has a complex system that could lead to deadly mistakes.
Clouds and windy weather might have complicated Das’ ability to handle the aircraft, Diehl added.
Investigators are also to look at whether there could have been a medical emergency, something an autopsy should help reveal.
Robert Katz, a certified flight instructor, said that he believed Das “was totally disoriented.”
Katz said the clouds were low enough that the pilot had to use an instrument landing system on his approach.
“In my opinion, he was clearly disoriented at that point,” Katz told CBS8 in San Diego. “He did not know which way was up.”
An NTSB investigator arrived at the crash scene on Tuesday morning and would review radar data, weather information, air traffic control communication, airplane maintenance records and the pilot’s medical records, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Gabris said.
Das worked at Yuma Regional Medical Center in Arizona and was flying from there to Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in San Diego, where he lived.
Before the crash, when the plane was about 800m from the runway, an air traffic controller alerted Das that the aircraft was too low.
On a recording made by LiveATC, a Web site that monitors and posts flight communications, the air controller repeatedly warns Das that he needs to climb in altitude.
He also cautioned that a C-130, a large military transport plane, was overhead and could cause turbulence.
Das responded that he was aware.
The controller is later heard saying: “It looks like you’re drifting right of course, are you correcting?”
“Correcting,” Das said.
Das asks if he has been cleared for the runway.
The controller says: “I need you to fly,” warning him that he is coming in too low.
Das tells him he is climbing.
The controller urges him to climb again, and Das says he is ascending.
“Ok. It looks like you’re descending, sir. I need to make sure you are climbing, not descending,” the controller says.
Then the controller speaks with more urgency.
“Low altitude alert, climb immediately, climb the airplane,” he says. “Climb the airplane please.”
The controller repeatedly urged the plane to climb to 1,524m, and when it remained at 457m, the controller said: “You appear to be descending again, sir.”
There is no response.
Diehl said that the plane at the last minute made a sweeping turn to the right as if trying to switch back to another airport that was closer because something was wrong, but Das did not mention that to air traffic control.
KGTV-TV posted video that the station said it received from a viewer showing the plane arcing in the sky and plunging into the neighborhood.
People a block away from the scene said their homes shook from the thunderous crash.
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