.Federal Investigation Into Fatal Plane Collision Underway

NTSB officials say it is unclear if pilots communicated before crash, which killed three people

The National Transportation Safety Board has begun its investigation into a Thursday mid-air collision between two airplanes above Watsonville Municipal Airport that killed three people and one dog.

NTSB Airsafety Investigator Fabian Salazar said during a Friday afternoon press conference that the probe into the rare fatal crash at the small Santa Cruz County airport will take anywhere from 12 to 24 months to complete, “depending on the complexities of the investigation.”

However, the agency will release a preliminary report on the crash in 14 days, Salazar said.

The Federal Aviation Administration and Textron Aviation Corporation are working with NTSB on the investigation.

Salazar gave few details about the crash, which claimed the lives of two men, a woman and a dog just before 3pm Thursday. The names of the victims had not been released as of 1:30pm Friday.

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Witnesses say that two planes, a twin-engine Cessna 340 and a smaller, single-engine Cessna 152, clipped wings while one was attempting to land.

The smaller plane appeared to flip on its side before crash landing near the beginning of the main runway off of Buena Vista Drive near Freedom Boulevard, according to witnesses. The other plane continued down the runway and smashed into a grassy field, igniting it ablaze before careening into an airplane hangar, which sustained major damage. That plane, officials at the scene said, had a man, a woman and a dog aboard.

The smaller plane had only the pilot aboard.

The three people and the dog were pronounced dead at the scene.

The airport was open as of Friday afternoon.

As an “uncontrolled” airport, Watsonville Municipal Airport does not have a control tower that guides air traffic. This means pilots are responsible for communicating with one another over radio frequencies when making approaches to land and while taking off. Salazar said that it is not clear if the pilots communicated before the collision. He also said that pilots are not required to do so.

“We are working to get the radio communications that were occurring on that day,” Salazar said.

Airport Director Rayvon Williams, who operates under the direction of the City of Watsonville, said that the addition of a control tower at Watsonville Municipal Airport would not be financially feasible at this time.

“The airspace around Watsonville at this particular time, nor the volume of traffic would support the cost of bringing a control tower to the field,” Williams said.

The single-engine Cessna is registered to Monterey Bay Aviation Inc., according to FAA records. It is listed on the United Flight Services’ website as available for rent. That business, which operates out of the airport and offers plane rentals and lessons, said in a phone call on Friday morning that it had no comment on the crash at this time.

The larger plane was registered to ALM Holding LLC. out of Merced County, according to FAA records.

Salazar was unwilling to comment on the planes’ origins.

The last fatal crash involving Watsonville Municipal Airport happened in 2011. Four people died after a plane crashed into nearby Watsonville Community Hospital shortly after taking off.

The airport’s website says the facility is home to 333 aircraft and that it is used extensively by various businesses.

In addition, the website says Watsonville’s airport is the Tri-County’s—a region encompassing Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties—busiest per number of operations and based aircraft. It supports many activities including private flying, flight training, ground school, aircraft rental, maintenance, air ambulance, law enforcement aviation, air charter, skydiving and many other aviation-related business concerns.

Williams said that the airport community was still trying to process the crash.

“It’s a small community and there are people here that are certainly grieving,” he said.

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Tarmo Hannula
Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.
Tony Nuñez
Tony Nuñez is a longtime member of the Watsonville community who served as Sports Editor of The Pajaronian for five years and three years as Managing Editor. He is a Watsonville High, Cabrillo College and San Jose State University alumnus.
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