'Hard' landing and low, fast flyover preceded fatal Chandler crash

The Fresno BeeJanuary 10, 2014 

A small airplane that crashed the day after Christmas, killing the pilot and his 8-year-old nephew, first made several passes over Chandler Downtown Airport's runway -- including one "hard" landing before taking off again and a high-speed pass just a few feet above the ground.

The details are part of a just-released preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the fiery Dec. 26 crash that killed 72-year-old pilot Timothy Farmer of Tehachapi and his nephew, Finn Thompson of Fresno.

The report recounts witnesses' observations leading up to the crash, which happened shortly before 6:30 p.m., but offers no insight into the cause of the incident. The NTSB doesn't comment on the probable cause of crashes until its investigators have completed their work -- a process that could take six months to a year as they pore over the burned wreckage of the single-engine Cessna 172.

RELATED: NTSB preliminary report on Chandler Downtown Airport crash

During one of the three nighttime passes over the runway, the airplane apparently clipped a 62-foot-tall tree at a home a quarter-mile from the southeast threshold of the runway, shearing off a portion of the left wingtip. Investigators saw "numerous broken branches about 40 to 45 feet off the ground.

"Numerous white paint chips, landing light lens cover fragments, and a portion of the left Fiberglas wingtip" were found near the tree, the NTSB report stated.

On the airplane's final pass over the runway before the crash, two people at the airport "reported observing the airplane fly along the runway about 100 feet (above the ground) and noted that the left wing navigation light appeared to be inoperative."

The airplane, built in 1970, was owned by Tehachapi businessman George W. Novinger, a friend of Farmer. Farmer was a licensed private pilot who received his latest medical certification in May. A Federal Aviation Administration database indicates Farmer's license required him to have glasses available for near vision.

The report said the flight took off from Tehachapi about 4:45 p.m., less than two hours before the crash.

The NTSB reported that Farmer was in contact with air traffic controllers as he approached Fresno. When he was about 10 miles south of Chandler, he told controllers he had the airport in sight and was authorized to change radio frequencies.

Several witnesses said they saw Farmer line up the airplane for an approach to the Chandler runway from the southeast. One witness on the airport ramp told NTSB investigators that Farmer's airplane "initially captured his attention when it landed hard about midway down the runway then proceeded to take off" again.

The plane flew on, then turned and made another approach from the northwest, when witnesses "observed the airplane fly at a high rate of speed about 10 to 15 feet above ground level." Farmer then climbed and made a series of turns southeast of the airport before approaching the runway a final time from the southeast.

"The witnesses stated that as the airplane neared the departure end of Runway 30 at an altitude of about 400 feet (above the ground), it rolled to the left" and dipped from their sight behind a row of hangars," the report said.

The airplane crashed in the front yard of a home about 500 feet from the end of the runway, on the west side of West Avenue and south of Whitesbridge Avenue. No one on the ground was hurt.

In the days following the crash, Fresno airport officials said the airfield's lights were operating properly and that trees on the airport property were appropriately trimmed to avoid obscuring pilots' views of the runway as they prepare to land.

But FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told The Bee "neither airport operators nor the FAA have jurisdiction over trees on private property." That would include the tree that Farmer apparently clipped in the backyard of a home on Thorne Avenue between Kearney Boulevard and Hawes Avenue, a few hundred feet southeast of the Chandler airport fenceline.

This story will be updated.

Crash site
A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board details witness accounts of a Dec. 26, 2013 airplane crash in which two people died near Fresno's Chandler Downtown Airport.

View Fatal airplane crash in a larger map

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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