PALO ALTO (CBS SF) — A plane crash in Palo Alto that killed a pilot and injured two other people last month happened after the pilot had difficulty finding the airport, although he had flown to it multiple times, according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Pilot W. John Spencer was providing free medical transport for a woman and her daughter through the nonprofit Angel Flight West at about 11 a.m. on Sept. 4 when the plane crashed in wetlands near the airport.
The Mooney M20J plane had left from Redding Municipal Airport at 9:24 a.m. and Spencer checked into Palo Alto Airport air traffic control a few minutes before landing to say he was about 10 miles north, the report said.
The controller told Spencer to “fly to KGO,” and when Spencer said he didn’t know what KGO was, the controller explained it was a set of radio towers and directed him to instead fly to the Dumbarton Bridge.
The plane was cleared to land minutes later, but Spencer told the controller he was having difficulty locating the airport, according to the report. Spencer then said he would abort the landing by doing a “go around” and declined help, saying he “just came in too fast.”
When Spencer made an attempt to land several minutes later, the report says a flight instructor and his student noticed the plane “porpoising,” or bouncing between its front and rear landing gear on the runway.
Witnesses then saw the airplane lift off again, bank steeply to the left, pitch its nose down and begin descending quickly toward the ground, according to the report. The flight student who was watching the plane told the NTSB the plane appeared to reverse course during the second lift-off.
The plane crashed into mud and water in a tidal flat, about 900 feet away from the runway, according to the report. The two passengers were able to exit the plane through the cabin door — the younger woman who was the patient being transported suffered minor injuries while her mother suffered major injuries.
First responders rescued the two women and determined that Spencer had died, according to the report.
Logbooks that were retrieved from the plane showed the crash happened during Spencer’s fourth trip to Palo Alto Airport, according to the report. On the day of the crash, the report said visibility was at 7 miles and the sky had scattered clouds.
Spencer’s logbook showed that a majority of his more than 1,000 flying hours were for Angel Flight West.
Officials from the nonprofit were “devastated and deeply saddened” to learn about Spencer’s death, they said in a statement after the crash. He began volunteering in 2014 and had donated more than 125 flights to families.
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