Investigation begins into E. Palo Alto plane crash

February 17, 2010 8:32:36 PM PST
Investigators are trying to find the cause of Wednesday's plane crash in East Palo Alto.

Officials say the pilot did file a flight plan. The Cessna 310R left Palo Alto Airport before 8 a.m. Wednesday and was headed to Hawthorne Municipal Airport in Los Angeles County. However, it did not get very far.

The plane sheared a transmission tower within minutes of taking off and parts of the plane landed on various homes in East Palo Alto including one that operates an in-home daycare center.

The plane that crashed is registered to Unique Air, Inc. located at 641 Wilson Court in Santa Clara. The home is a residence where the pilot, Doug Bourn, lived. Tesla Motors, the electric car company in San Carlos, issued a statement Wednesday confirming that all three persons aboard the twin-engine plane were Tesla employees.

Fellow pilots at Palo Alto Airport were reluctant to speculate on what caused the airplane to crash. They say they know the pilot to be experienced with over 2,000 hours of flight time, and they know the Cessna 310R to be a safe and dependable aircraft.

Still, shortly after take-off something went terribly wrong.

There was fog at the airport when the Cessna twin-engine plane took off. Pilots say visibility was just under one mile, not ideal conditions, but permissible.

"No, and it would also be completely legal," said flight instructor Steve Philipson. "The pilot was almost certainly taking off on Instrument Flight Rules. For a general aviation flight like this, not-commercial, there are no minimums for what you have to have, but a good rule to follow is to have one mile of visibility."

Pilots say the Cessna would have broken through the fog in a matter of seconds. However, something may have happened because the aircraft did not follow the standard pattern. At 400 feet, the pilot should have turned right. Instead, he turned left. And, the fog may have made the situation worse.

"You don't have a lot of time in a case like this because he had just taken off. He was fairly low to the ground. He had weather. He couldn't see the ground," explained ABC7 aviation consultant Ron Wilson. "So, he couldn't find a place to land if he wanted to because of the fog this morning and consequently, he may have had 30 to 45 seconds to make any decisions that he made, and to try to increase power on the airplane and to climb out above anything that he may have encountered on the ground."

The Cessna 310R that crashed had tail number N5225J. It is considered extremely airworthy and capable of long-range flights. The plane, built in 1976, was doing a short hop to Southern California. Fellow pilots believe something mechanical went wrong in the foggy conditions.

"It's unusual that he would be half a mile off centerline to the left. It doesn't make any sense that that would happen," said Ken Gottfredson with Advantage Aviation. "There was fog, so he could have been distracted, but it's unlikely he would have been disoriented without some sort of mechanical malfunction to support that."

Like most general aviation aircraft, the Cessna 310R does not have a flight data recorder, the so-called "black box." So, as the National Transportation Safety Board steps in, they will be paying a lot of attention to communications between the air traffic controllers at Palo Alto Airport and the pilot of the Cessna.

The Cessna 310R is a tried-and-true design, a twin-engine aircraft first manufactured more than 50 years ago. Records indicate Bourn's plane was built in 1976 and registered to a company in Santa Clara.

It became very popular with air taxi services because it can carry 2,000 pounds of payload more than 800 miles at speeds of more than 200 miles an hour before refueling up. Early models of the plane held 4 people and later models grew to hold about 7 passengers.

The last Cessna 310R rolled off the assembly line in 1981, but it is still very popular in the general aviation world. The FAA says there are more than 3,000 Cessna 310Rs still registered and flying in the U.S.

Between 1983 and 2007, there were 461 accidents involving the aircraft. 137 of those involved at least one fatality. Pilots need a special certificate called a "Multi-engine Rating" in order to fly them.

Although it is going to be a while before a cause is determined in this case, the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association says weather is the number one cause of light twin-engine plane crashes.