NTSB releases new details about Madera plane crash that killed two people

The remains from a plane crash just outside Madera have been moved to a safe location, as the National Transportation Safety Board continues its investigation continues into what caused a fatal plane crash Thursday in a field near Avenue 17 and Road 23.

It’s still unclear what exactly caused the light sport Stingsport airplane to crash, killing Fresno residents Joe Franklin Kulbeth, 76, and Saverio Chimienti Jr., 28, during a training flight just before 1 p.m.

But National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator Maja Smith revealed some new details Saturday during a news briefing at Madera County Sheriff’s Office headquarters.

Among the highlights of those details, Smith said the plane’s parachute did not deploy during the incident. The plane was equipped with a ballistic parachute system that deploys with a small explosive charge in an emergency. That prompted a bomb squad unit from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office to be called to the scene to disarm the system.

Smith said a preliminary report would be released in five to 10 days. A full report could take about two years, she said.

A team involving Smith and two Federal Aviation Administration investigators retrieved the parts Friday and sent them to be examined. The next phase of the investigation will include looking into the pilot’s flight and medical history, as well as any aircraft issues if the weather was a factor in the crash.

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Investigators examine the scene of a small airplane crashed in a Madera County field on Thursday, April 25, 2019. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Smith said the plane’s fuel tanks were not breached during the crash. She said investigators were able to smell the fuel on scene, and adding there were no signs the plane had refueled at the Madera airport.

Smith said investigators have heard from at least one pilot who shared that he heard radio communication coming from the aircraft before the crash. Smith said the pilot heard the two men killed were about to perform a “simulated emergency turnaround.” NTSB is attempting to obtain radar data to determine the altitude of the plane at the time it went down.

The plane was registered to an address at Sierra Sky Part Airport, in northwest Fresno. Smith said it’s possible the aircraft was not in communication with air traffic control at Madera Municipal Airport, since the air traffic in the area is uncontrolled and does not require aircraft to make radio calls when they move between airports.

“We don’t have any information right now that they were in contact with any agency services,” Smith said.

But airplanes, like the downed Stingsport, are equipped with individual radio systems that allow pilots to communicate with other pilots for advisories.

Smith said that is how the pilot witness heard of the training flight. She’s turning to other pilots who may have flown in the area at the time of the crash to come forward so investigators can get a clear picture of the crash.

“I would really like if anybody who was in the area at the time the airplane was flying to give us a buzz,” Smith said.

Investigators still do not know which of the occupants was flying the airplane. Chimienti Jr. held a student pilot license and Kulbeth had a commercial flight license. The FAA does not allow student pilots who fly to carry passengers.

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is a general assignment reporter at The Fresno Bee. He grew up in Porterville and has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Fresno State. He is a former student editor at the Fresno State and Fresno City College newspapers. His hobbies include reading, sleeping, running and taking care of his dog.