Pilot in fatal California crash has repeatedly been warned to climb
The air traffic controller repeated the warnings to the pilot more than half a dozen times. Stop drifting, stay on course and an icy, urgent call: “Low altitude alert, get on immediately, get on the plane.”
Instead, the twin-engine plane crashed into a San Diego suburb, killing the pilot and a delivery driver on the ground and setting houses on fire. Now federal investigators must try to figure out what caused the crash that left a neighborhood shocked and damaged.
The Cessna 340 nosed down and hooked up a UPS van at Santee Monday afternoon as it prepared to land at the Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in San Diego.
An elderly couple were burnt to the ground when their house caught fire. Neighbors helped the woman out of a window. Nearly a dozen other homes in the eastern suburbs of San Diego were damaged.
The plane was owned and flown by Dr. Sugata Das, a cardiologist who worked in Yuma, Ariz., And was traveling to his home in San Diego, according to the website of a nonprofit charity group he led, the Power of Love Foundation.
On a recording made by LiveATC, a website that monitors and publishes flight communications, an air traffic controller repeatedly warns Das that he must climb to altitude. He also warned that a C-130, a large military transport aircraft, was overhead and could cause turbulence.
Das replied that he knew about it.
Later we hear the controller say, “Looks like you’re drifting right of course, are you correcting?” “
“Correct,” Das replies.
Das asks if he’s been cleared to use the trail. The controller says “I need you to fly”, warning him that he is coming too low.
Das tells him he’s climbing. The controller urges him to come back up and Das says he is going up.
“Okay. Looks like you are going down sir. I have to make sure you are going up, not that you are going down,” said the controller.
Then the controller speaks with more urgency.
“Low altitude alert, get on immediately, get on the plane,” he said. “Get on the plane please.”
The controller repeatedly urged the aircraft to climb to 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), and when he remained at 1,500 feet (457 meters), the controller warned, “You seem to be coming down, sir. “
There’s no answer.
An NTSB investigator arrived at the crash scene Tuesday morning and will examine radar data, weather information, air traffic control communications, aircraft maintenance records and the pilot’s medical records, said agency spokesperson Jennifer Gabris.
Al Diehl, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said the recording indicates the pilot was trying to cope with a major distraction or emergency on his own – breaking a rule of thumb that Airmen should always say everything to controllers.
“The first thing you do when you’re in trouble is call, climb up and confess – and he didn’t 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 the plane has a complex system that could lead to fatal errors.
Clouds and wind may have made it difficult for Das to handle the plane, Diehl said. Investigators will also examine whether there could have been a medical emergency, which an autopsy should help reveal.
Diehl noted that the plane at the last minute made a quick right turn as if trying to get back to another, closer airport because something was wrong. Das did not mention it to air traffic control.
Robert Katz, a certified flight instructor, said he thought Das “was totally disoriented”. Katz said the clouds were low enough that the pilot had to use an instrument landing system on the approach.
“He doesn’t know where the way is,” Katz told CBS8 in San Diego.
Das grew up on the west coast of India and received a medical degree from the University of Pune. He went to Yuma in 2004 and established a cardiovascular practice, according to the Power of Love Foundation. He leaves behind a wife and two sons.
UPS driver Steve Krueger, 61, lived in the Ocean Beach neighborhood of Ocean Beach and was on his regular route when he was killed. He was planning to retire on October 22, his brother Jeffrey Krueger said.
He was immensely popular with his customers, the brother said.
“At Christmas he really liked candy and they always bombarded him with stuff,” he told KNSD-TV. “They really liked him and he always had fun with them. He was that kind of guy.
“He was great, you have to be positive,” said Jeff Kreuger. “Things will always get better and don’t take life so seriously that you get discouraged. Have fun with things.
Krueger also loved skiing and other sports. He had bought a house near Mammoth Lakes.
Krueger sent photos of him wearing his brown uniform and holding a UPS package as he waterskied and posing with the mammoth Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort mascot, his brother said.
UPS held a minute’s silence in Krueger’s honor on Tuesday, and the flag outside a UPS customer service center in San Diego was lowered to half.
“Those who knew Steve said he took pride in his work,” a company statement said, “And his positive attitude and cheerful laughter made the tough days a little lighter.”
Associated Press editors Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.