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November 26, 2022

Federal investigation into fatal plane collision underway

WATSONVILLE—The National Transportation Safety Board has begun its investigation into a Thursday mid-air collision between two airplanes above Watsonville Municipal Airport that killed three people and one dog.

NTSB Airsafety Investigator Fabian Salazar said during a Friday afternoon press conference that the probe into the rare fatal crash at the small Santa Cruz County airport will take anywhere from 12 to 24 months to complete, “depending on the complexities of the investigation.”

However, the agency will release a preliminary report on the crash in 14 days, Salazar said.

The Federal Aviation Administration and Textron Aviation Corporation are working with NTSB on the investigation.

Salazar gave few details about the crash, which claimed the lives of two men, a woman and a dog just before 3pm Thursday. The names of the victims had not been released as of 1:30pm Friday.

Witnesses say that two planes, a twin-engine Cessna 340 and a smaller, single-engine Cessna 152, clipped wings while one was attempting to land.

The smaller plane appeared to flip on its side before crash landing near the beginning of the main runway off of Buena Vista Drive near Freedom Boulevard, according to witnesses. The other plane continued down the runway and smashed into a grassy field, igniting it ablaze before careening into an airplane hangar, which sustained major damage. That plane, officials at the scene said, had a man, a woman and a dog aboard.

The smaller plane had only the pilot aboard.

The three people and the dog were pronounced dead at the scene.

The airport was open as of Friday afternoon.

watsonville municipal airport crash investigation
Rayvon Williams (from rear, left), director of Watsonville Municipal Airport, Fabian Salazar and Andrew Swift, both of the National Transportation Safety Board, field questions from the media Friday at Watsonville Municipal Airport. Photo: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

As an “uncontrolled” airport, Watsonville Municipal Airport does not have a control tower that guides air traffic. This means pilots are responsible for communicating with one another over radio frequencies when making approaches to land and while taking off. Salazar said that it is not clear if the pilots communicated before the collision. He also said that pilots are not required to do so.

“We are working to get the radio communications that were occurring on that day,” Salazar said.

Airport Director Rayvon Williams, who operates under the direction of the City of Watsonville, said that the addition of a control tower at Watsonville Municipal Airport would not be financially feasible at this time.

“The airspace around Watsonville at this particular time, nor the volume of traffic would support the cost of bringing a control tower to the field,” Williams said.

The single-engine Cessna is registered to Monterey Bay Aviation Inc., according to FAA records. It is listed on the United Flight Services’ website as available for rent. That business, which operates out of the airport and offers plane rentals and lessons, said in a phone call on Friday morning that it had no comment on the crash at this time.

Witnesses at the crash site said the Cessna 152 pilot had rented a plane through United Flight Services and was practicing “touch and go” takeoffs and landings Thursday.

The larger plane was registered to ALM Holding LLC out of Merced County, according to FAA records.

Dozens of people gathered near the intersection of Buena Vista Drive at Calabasas Road to view the wreckage and emergency official response. A few of them said they had learned that the twin-engine plane was flying in from Turlock.

Salazar was unwilling to comment on the planes’ origins.

The last fatal crash involving Watsonville Municipal Airport happened in 2011. Four people died after a plane crashed into nearby Watsonville Community Hospital shortly after taking off.

The airport website says the facility is home to 333 aircraft and that it is used extensively by various businesses and specifically the agri-business community. 

In addition, the website says Watsonville’s airport is the Tri-County’s—a region encompassing Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties—busiest per number of operations and based aircraft. It supports many activities including private flying, flight training, ground school, aircraft rental, maintenance, air ambulance, law enforcement aviation, air charter, skydiving and many other aviation-related business concerns.

watsonville municipal airport crash investigation beth stocking
Beth Stocking of Watsonville places fresh flowers Friday on a fence near the spot where one of two airplanes crashed Thursday at Watsonville Municipal Airport. Photo: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

Williams said that the airport community was still trying to process the crash.

“It’s a small community and there are people here that are certainly grieving,” he said.

Beth Stocking took time Friday to place a bouquet of marigolds on the fence near the crash site of the single-engine Cessna 152.

“I work at Ella’s and I knew this pilot,” she said. “It’s just very, very sad. My husband said he heard the crash. It shook us all up. There was debris scattered all over Buena Vista and the neighborhood. From what I hear, many people at Ella’s yesterday saw the crash. I’ve lived near the crash site for the past 12 years and have never seen anything like this. It’s really disturbing.”

Stocking said she believed the Cessna 152 pilot was 32 years old and that he was “trying to get back into flying.”

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