2 killed in plane crash near Fresno's Chandler Airport

The Fresno BeeDecember 26, 2013 

Two people were killed when a Cessna 172 crashed in the front yard of a home near southwest Fresno's Chandler Downtown Airport Thursday night, police said.

Officials said the two occupants -- a man and a 9-year-old boy who was believed to be the man's nephew -- were on board the aircraft when it crashed about 800 feet west of Runway 12. No one in the house was injured and the house was not damaged, police said.

Fire spokesman Koby Johns said the plane flew out of Fresno -- it was not immediately clear whether it had taken off from Chandler -- and flew south to Tehachapi before they turned around and returned to Fresno.

Authorities believe the plane may have clipped a tree as it was attempting to land at the airport about 6:30 p.m., Johns said. The pilot tried to regain control of the aircraft as it traveled the length of the airport before it nosed down and crashed just beyond the runway.

Updates: The National Transportation Safety Board announced that it will host a news conference at the crash site at 2 p.m. Friday. Come back to fresnobee.com later Friday for complete coverage of the news conference and any other new details.

The owner of the plane, according to federal records, is George W. Novinger of Tehachapi.

Fresno County Coroner Dr. David Hadden said that the identity of the crash victims will not be released before an autopsy. which was scheduled for Friday morning.

Hadden said the pilot called family members to ask them to meet the plane at the airport shortly before he attempted to land.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the crash, with the NTSB taking the lead, said Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for FAA's Pacific Division. The NTSB was expected to be at the airport Friday.

Based on eyewitness accounts, the moments leading up to the crash appear to have been a desperate effort by the pilot to fix a rapidly deteriorating situation.

Joe Luna, 55, said he was standing on the front porch of a friend's house on the northeast corner of Thorne and Hawes avenues about 6:30 p.m. The house is near the south end of Chandler's runway.

Luna said he visits often and has seen many small planes circle over the neighborhood as they prepare to land. This time, Luna said, the plane circled once, then circled again.

On the second circuit, Luna said, the plane made an unusually sharp turn toward the runway -- "like he was in trouble."

The plane came in low and clipped a tall pecan tree in the backyard, Luna said. Branches were torn and fell to the ground. So, too, did parts of the plane, he said.

The plane staggered forward in the darkness. It flew past the Chandler terminal where, according to Johns, the boy's family was awaiting his safe arrival.

Chandler is not big as big-city airports go. Urban Fresno has encroached on its nooks and crannies. The plane veered away from the airport's runway, which lies at an angle between Kearney Boulevard and Whitesbridge Avenue.

Johns said he could only speculate what the pilot was doing at this point. Perhaps the pilot was trying to regain speed and stability, he said.

The plane headed past hangars on the airport's west side.

Chris Castello, 31, said he was standing outside his house on Ila Avenue, not far from the hangars, when he saw the plane. He said the plane swooped straight up, then suddenly plunged nose down.

Castello said he heard a boom, then saw flames.

The plane landed in the front yard of a house on a short stretch of West Avenue that ends at the airport.

Esmeralda Ortega was with her aunt and uncle when she heard the plane coming down and getting closer. She thought it was going to hit her uncle's house on this stretch of West. She heard her aunt yell, "Everyone get out."

Ortega said she saw the plane hit and catch fire: "It was ugly."

She said the plane, a mere two houses away, looked cut in half as if it had hit a tree in the front yard.

Police officers and firefighters responded.

Back at the house at Thorne and Hawes, Serena Orosco said she was trying to make sense of what had happened in the space above her backyard. She has lived in the house for more than 25 years and had just gotten off work after a 12-hour shift.

She said she didn't see the plane hit her tree. But, she said, it was clear from the shock of family members that something serious had happened.

Then she looked in the backyard, Orosco said. There, lying on the ground near an outdoor table, was a piece of an airplane. She said she could make out a word on it: "Cessna."

Orosco said she drove to the crash site. She said police initially told her to move on.

"I told them, 'No, you need to come to my house,' " Orosco said.

It was unclear Thursday night whether the plane shed still more debris before crashing. An airport official was checking the Chandler runway for debris Thursday evening.

City Manager Bruce Rudd said in a prepared statement: "It's a terrible accident. Our hearts and prayers go out to the family."

The reporters can be reached at ghostetter@fresnobee.com, daguilera@fresnobee.com, jrayburn@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6330.

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