The fiery crash of a Cessna 414 cabin class piston twin into a neighborhood in Orange County, California, on Sunday is horrifying. It was especially so to me, as I spent my college years and then some living right under the short path of the fated plane’s flight. The plane took off from Fullerton Municipal Airport and crashed a short time later in Yorba Linda. I lived in Fullerton for years on the border of Yorba Linda. While it’s a congested area overall, there are endless places the airplane could have crashed without injuring anyone on the ground. In this case, falling debris hit several homes, killing four people on the ground, who were hosting a Super Bowl party when tragedy struck. The pilot of the plane, 75 year old Antonio Pastini, was killed in the crash, too.
Are you an aviation enthusiast or pilot? Sign up for our newsletter, full of tips, reviews and more!
One element of the crash that’s so unusual is that it killed people on the ground. This is something that very rarely happens, even when airliners crash. There have been similar crashes over the past 25 years, but they are rare. The so-called “big sky theory” holds that airplanes don’t hit each other in the air often simply because the sky is so vast. The same might be said about the ground. Despite the vast majority of fatal airplane crashes being into the ground and not the water, people on the ground are seldom killed or injured, a fact that is of zero consolation to the families of those who have been killed or injured, including the four people on the ground in Orange County this weekend. Why this is so is probably similar to the big sky theory in that, while there are a lot of people on the planet, there are a seemingly infinite number of places a plane could crash and not hit someone.
So far in Orange County there’s been little call to close the airport the plane took off from, though that is a common aftereffect of such tragedies. We know of no airport that has ever been closed as the result of a crash, but such tragedies certainly hurt our efforts to keep airports open in highly populated areas, where they are most threatened, like in Santa Monica, California.
The other really unusual thing about the crash is that the manner in which it happened. As seen on footage from numerous security and dashboard cameras, the plane emerged from an overcast already out of control. This is typical of loss of control accidents. In the vast majority of cases in which an airplane breaks up in flight, and this one was broken apparently before it came through the cloud deck, loss of control is the reason. There are other possibilities, everything from a midair (which clearly didn’t happen here) to structural failure, which, again, there are no signs of in this mishap. Typically, the cause of such crashes is loss of control and the pilot attempting a recovery that overstresses the airplane.
The cause of these kinds of crashes historically has been vacuum failure in IMC and the subsequent loss of situational awareness. Once the plane goes out of control the chances of any pilot getting it back under are very slim indeed. This is not to say that the Yorba Linda crash was caused by a mechanical failure. There are other explanations, and we hope the NTSB gets to the bottom of that cause, but with debris scattered widely, it has its work cut out for it. In these circumstances I’m grateful we have the best accident investigation organization in the world.
But the really unusual thing about this crash is that the plane burst into flames before it hit the ground. It looks to be at least several hundred feet, perhaps a thousand feet in the air, when it erupts into a fireball. This is rare but can be explained by fuel from a wing separating in flight igniting against the hot engine. It takes little more than a spark to make that happen.
Our thoughts are with the victims of the crash, as well as with investigators, who are on the scene still today trying to piece together the parts of a puzzling crash so their findings might help prevent future tragedies.