Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pilot error blamed for 2009 midair crash off Long Beach breakwater

LONG BEACH - The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday released its probable cause report of the fatal collision of two small planes May 18 about five miles south of the breakwater.

The NTSB determined the crash was "the failure of both pilots to see and avoid each other's aircraft," according to the report.

The midair collision killed Gary Gierczak, 54, of Los Alamitos, James C. Choo 32, of Torrance and Thomas Ferrell, 32, of the Netherlands, who was visiting family in Westminster.

Detailed accounts from a pilot who witnessed the fatal crash also was listed in the report.

The eyewitness pilot, who was flying south in the immediate area of the collision, noticed a silhouette of what appeared to be a Cessna 172 at his 10 to ll o'clock position. Choo, a certified flight instructor with 1,881 hours of flying time, and Ferrell, a student pilot, were aboard the plane.

The airplane appeared to be performing maneuvers and making turns in a counterclockwise, followed by a clockwise, direction, according to the report.

The witness altered his course slightly to the right, due to the Cessna's proximity, and continued to monitor the Cessna's location, the report stated.

As the pilot looked to his right while turning, he noticed another airplane, traveling at high speed, entering the area from the west and heading east. He couldn't identify the airplane type because the sun had almost set on the horizon. He identified it as a "black object."

It was a Cessna 310P piloted by Gierczak, who held an airline-transport pilot license, the highest level license, which allows one to fly as a captain for the airlines. He had 3,378 hours of flying time.

The fast moving Cessna 310 remained on an easterly path while the Cessna 172 continued heading south and performing maneuvers. Both planes were at about the same altitudes, the report stated.

Shortly thereafter, around 6 p.m., he saw both airplanes collide and "immediately disintegrated into small pieces." The debris from both airplanes descended into the ocean. The pilot reported the collision to air traffic control and circled the area of floating debris until first responders arrived, the report stated.

On May 20 and 21, divers with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Port of Los Angeles police recovered wreckage of both planes and the remains of the three victims on the ocean floor about 80 feet below the surface and five miles south of the breakwater.

Both planes had taken off from Long Beach Airport. The Cessna 310 departed about 5:20 p.m. and the Cessna 172 departed about 5:50 p.m., the report stated.

(Phillip Zonkel - Press Telegram)

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