8-year-old Fresno boy one of two people killed in plane crash near Chandler Airport

The Fresno BeeDecember 27, 2013 

An 8-year-old boy from Fresno was one of two people killed when a private plane crashed as it tried to land at Chandler Downtown Airport.

The pilot of the single-engine Cessna made looping, 180-degree turns over the airport before the plane clipped a tree and crashed Thursday night outside a southwest Fresno home, causing it to burst into flames, a federal investigator said Friday.

Two people were killed: the licensed pilot, who was in his 70s and from Tehachapi, as well as the boy. The pilot was tentatively identified as Timothy Lowell Farmer, 72, of Tehachapi, said Venu Gopal, Fresno County's chief forensic pathologist. He said the child was tentatively identified as Finn Thompson, 8, who lived in the Fresno area. (Coroner officials initially gave his age as 9, but changed it to 8 on Saturday after further review of records.)

He said the identities will be confirmed through dental records, which the Fresno County Coroner's Office is awaiting. Gopal said he has been in touch with the victims' Fresno relatives.

Farmer did not own the Cessna 172 K model aircraft, but he was licensed and had a valid medical certificate to fly, Joshua Cawthra of the National Transportation Safety Board told reporters.

The plane was built in the 1970s, he said.

The crash happened about 6:30 p.m. Thursday on the west side of West Avenue, south of Whites Bridge Avenue -- about 800 feet west of the runway.

No one in the house was injured, and the structure was undamaged, police said.

Cawthra said he was investigating the plane's flight path, but it appeared the aircraft left Fresno sometime Thursday afternoon and headed south toward Tehachapi, in the mountains east of Bakersfield.

Cawthra said he didn't believe the plane landed in Tehachapi before it turned around and headed back to Fresno. "I don't know how close it was to Tehachapi before the pilot decided to come back," he said.

Ten miles south of Fresno, Farmer made radio contact with air traffic control officials, saying he had visual sight of the airport, Cawthra said. (Chandler does not have an air traffic tower; Fresno Yosemite International Airport does.)

Farmer then came in at a low altitude and made a series of maneuvers, including two 180-degree turns that caused witnesses to become alarmed, Cawthra said.

Coming in from the south, he made two passes over the runway before he made his final approach toward the runway. The plane clipped a tree with its left wing near the southeast side of the airport and crashed on the northwest side.

At the time, the sky was hazy but winds were calm, Cawthra said.

Cawthra, who arrived at the crash scene Thursday night, said the No. 1 priority is to collect data such as the pilot's flight log and all the pieces of the wreckage. The debris was headed to a secured location in Madera for further analysis.

"Our goal is to find out what happened and why it happened so we can prevent this from happening again," he said.

A preliminary report of the crash will be available within five business days. A final report that details how the plane crashed and why it crashed could take six months to a year to complete, he said.

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

Kenneth Hetge, owner of an airplane maintenance/storage business at the Tehachapi Municipal Airport, said Farmer had a brother who lived in Fresno who died recently. "I remember Tim driving up to Fresno with a U-Haul and coming back with a myriad of stuff that belonged to his brother."

The owner of the plane, according to federal records, is George W. Novinger of Tehachapi. He also owns the Apple Shed restaurant in Tehachapi. Novinger told The Bakersfield Californian that Farmer had been a longtime friend and had logged many hours in the air.

Novinger said he first met Farmer when he was a teacher at Hoover High School in Glendale in 1959 and Farmer was a student. The two became reacquainted after both moved to Tehachapi.

Novinger said Farmer and Farmer's nephew were flying to Monument Valley to spend a few days there. He said Farmer had previously owned a Cessna 172, but sold it and began flying Novinger's Cessna a year or two ago.

Novinger said he felt "terrible for the parents of the young man who was with him, and for (Farmer) and his friends," Novinger said.

Farmer was a Kiwanis Club member who dedicated a lot of his time to service, Novinger said.

"We'll miss him," Novinger said.

Staff writer Barbara Anderson contributed to this report. The reporters can be reached at (559) 441-6330, plopez@fresnobee.com or mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or @beecourts or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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