Witnesses Recount Plane Falling Out of Sky Before Fatal Crash in Santa Ana

Shortly after noon on Sunday, the control tower at John Wayne Airport received a distressed call demanding an emergency landing coming from a twin engine Cessna inbound from Buchanan Field Airport in Concord, California. Minutes later, at roughly 12:38 p.m., the Cessna crashed into a red Chevrolet sedan parked outside of Staples off Bristol across from South Coast Plaza, only a few short miles away from the runway of John Wayne Airport. All five passengers aboard the seven-seat 1973 Cessna Series 414 were killed instantly.

A local employee, who requested anonymity, recounted the incident. “I looked up and saw the plane turning left and making a weird noise and thought, ‘What the hell is happening?'” the witness said. “Then it began nosediving, fast, and then it hit the car. After it hit, there was no explosion or fire.”

The sheared Cessna lay scattered across the asphalt. The rear of the red Chevrolet sedan hit by the plane was crushed. The car’s owner had parked minutes before the crash and was inside shopping at Staples, according to the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA).

Many witnesses expected there to be an explosion and kept their distance, but no explosion came. Typically, the 100 octane fuel in a Cessna is highly combustible, according to the OCFA. Fire authorities investigating the crash have said that the lack of fire or explosion was surprising.

Alex Perkins was walking into Staples when he heard a loud sputter from the planes engine and saw the Cessna drop from the sky. Perkins, a former paramedic, saw two of the plane’s passengers on the ground and ran to help. Perkins checked the pulses of the two men, but no heartbeat registered. He then looked inside the Cessna and saw that the man in the pilot’s seat and the two passengers in the rear of the plane were all deceased.

The pilot, Scott Shepherd, along with the four passengers–Navid Hakimi, Floria Hakimi, Nasim Ghanadan, and Lara Shepherd- left Concord at 10:23 a.m., according to the Federal Aviation Administration. All five worked together at Union Pacific Real Estate in Danville, and were en route to a real estate conference in Southern California. According to Union Pacific, Scott Shepherd was an experienced pilot.

“This is an absolute tragedy,” said Orange County Fire Authority Captain Steve Concialdi. “This is an extremely busy parking lot and it’s a miracle that nobody on the ground was hurt in the crash.”

Investigators from the NTSB at the scene off Bristol

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is heading the investigation into the crash, and expects to release a preliminary report within one to two weeks. Following the initial report, the NTSB says a full report will be released within 12 to 24 months. Sunday’s tragic crash is the second fatal one related to John Wayne this year, and is the airport’s third major incident of 2018.

On January 28, a single engine Beech airplane piloted by a 24-year-old man was forced to fly underneath an overpass of the 55 freeway and land on the northbound Del Mar exit. Fortunately, nobody was injured.

Two days after the January 28 incident, another crash from John Wayne ended tragically. Shortly after leaving John Wayne, a small helicopter crashed into a home in Newport Beach. Three of the passengers aboard the helicopter were killed, while two sustained serious injuries.

Private aircraft crashes and incidents are unsurprisingly frequent at John Wayne Airport. Since 2010, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) reports 21 confirmed minor incidents with aircraft landing at John Wayne Airport. Each of the 21 confirmed minor incidents involved small private aircraft similar to the Beech that landed on the freeway, and the Cessna that crashed on Sunday.

These are sad, but unsurprising statistics given the number of private flights out of John Wayne. According to Deanne Thompson, spokesperson for John Wayne, roughly 70 percent of the airport’s flights are from private general aviation aircraft.

“There have been 26,643 total landings in June of 2018,” Thompson said. “General aviation flights [private planes] made up 69.8 percent of landings. Last year, we served 10.6 million passengers, and this year we’re on track to surpass that. But most of those passengers fly commercially, and those flights make up only 30 percent of our flights.” According to FAA data, Santa Ana was the 40th busiest passenger traffic airport in the country in 2016, and the sixth busiest airport in California.

Witnesses and authorities speculate that Sunday’s fatal crash likely had to do with a problem with the engine. Many believe the plane ran out of fuel, and point to the sound of the engine and the lack of fire as evidence. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilot Association’s data on the Cessna 414, a well equipped Cessna with six passengers and luggage could fly for about two hours. The NTSB, FAA, and OCFA have all opted not to comment on the cause of the crash, and say that the preliminary report will provide more information.

Until then, our hearts go out to the families and friends of the victims.

Our hearts are with the families of the victims, and the first responders on the scene.

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