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

The Fresno BeeJanuary 10, 2014 

JRW PLANE CRASH 1

An investigator photographs the tail section wreckage of the small plane, Friday afternoon, that came to rest in a front yard of a home west of Chandler Airport, which crashed Thursday evening killing two.

JOHN WALKER — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

The pilot of a small airplane that crashed the day after Christmas made several unorthodox passes over the Chandler Downtown Airport runway — including one "hard" landing before taking off again and a low-altitude, high-speed pass — before the impact that killed him and his 8-year-old nephew.

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.

RELATED: NTSB preliminary report on Chandler Downtown Airport crash

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 airplane.

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

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

And 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 1970-built airplane was owned by Tehachapi businessman George W. Novinger, a friend of Farmer's. Farmer was a licensed private pilot who received his latest medical certification last May.

A Federal Aviation Administration database indicates that 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 by radio that 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."

The plane flew on, turned around and made an approach from the northwest in which 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 one 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 south of Whitesbridge Avenue. No one on the ground was hurt in the incident.

In the days following the crash, Fresno airport officials said that 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 during landing.

But FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told The Bee that "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 from the southeast corner of the Chandler airport fenceline.

"We have not received any complaints or concerns about the trees from pilots, beyond casual comments in passing about how close they appear," said Rhonda Jorn, a spokeswoman for Fresno's airports division.

Experienced pilots at Chandler were puzzled by Farmer's apparent actions before the crash, particularly his altitude when he clipped the tree southeast of the airport.

"He was way too low," said Bill Asbury, who has been a pilot flying at Chandler for about 40 years. And by making passes in two different directions, "he wasn't following the normal flight pattern," Asbury added.

Years ago, a section of the tall palm trees that line Kearney Boulevard west of downtown Fresno — and in line with the Chandler approach from the southeast — was removed, Asbury recalled.

"Neighborhood encroachment is an issue for almost all airports," said Bruce McJunkin, owner of the airport's TailSpin Tommy's Aerodrome Eatery and a longtime pilot and aircraft designer.

But, he added, the landing threshold at Chandler — the painted markers on the pavement that pilots must cross before they touch down — is far enough up the runway that trees aren't a problem if a pilot is approaching at a safe altitude.

At their lunchtime table Friday inside the airport cafe, pilots Doug Betts, Jim Coelho and John Pugliese agreed that Farmer's maneuvers were out of the ordinary, but they didn't want to speculate why.

"The report said he landed hard on the first try, and so pilots are trained if something is wrong to power back up and go around for another attempt," said Betts, president of the Fresno chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association.

"Ordinarily, a pilot would go all the way around the airport" for a second landing try, he added. "Coming back down the other way is unusual … and implies that something else was going on because he didn't land."

Coelho suggested that Farmer was flying in a borrowed airplane and might not have been completely familiar with the plane's cockpit controls, including the light switch for the altimeter and gauges, if he had not been planning to fly after dark.

But daytime or nighttime, Pugliese said, "there is nothing wrong with the airport or its surroundings."

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

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