Going Direct: Why Deadly Southern California Cessna 414 Crash Is An Anomaly

Watch the center of the screen just above the horizon to see footage of the explosion.

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.

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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.

8 thoughts on “Going Direct: Why Deadly Southern California Cessna 414 Crash Is An Anomaly

  1. I’m wondering with the weather that was in the area at the time, I’ve heard thunderstorms and rain if it was not an inflight break up. Seeing as how the wreckage was over a rather large area?

  2. Spatial disorientation….loss of control….over stressing the aircraft, leading to a mid-air break-up…. All are likely in this unfortunate mishap. The question remains, “Why?” Initial reports suggest that this was a VFR flight. If so, that would be a ‘Red Flag’ right there. Flying under Visual Flight Rules into IMC (Instrument Meteoroligical Conditions) seldom end well. I won’t rush to judgment here, as not enough is known about the pilot, his experience and proficiency, the aircraft’s maintenance history, the nature of this flight, etc. I look forward to the NTSB’s preliminary report, due out in a week or so.

  3. this whole thing is starting to look strange they now say the pilot was claiming to be a retired Chicago police officer and found a badge in the wreckage the only problem is Chicago PD has no record of this guy ever being on the force, conspiracy time anyone possible sabotage? he was a successful restauranteur in So Cal something is fishy with this whole thing the way the plane broke up and caught fire was he still on climb out of Fullerton how many quick maneuvers would you do in IFR conditions on a climb out? I know they have noise abatement procedure for runway 06 turn 85 degrees follow tracks until 1100′ MSL if your flying a twin or better I guess we’ll all know the story eventually the tragedy in this is the people on the ground that didn’t even see it coming

  4. Clint: There’s a government coverup. Alien spaceships from Area 51 came and zapped him out of the sky. If you look carefully at the video you can see slight traces of the spaceship’s cloaking device.

  5. Could the pilot suffer some type of medical emergency like a heart attack or stroke, go unconscious and slump over the controls pushing the nose down into a dive?

    Also what if the fuel pump transfer switch somehow shorted or broke, causing all the fuel from one wing to transfer to the other wing causing the plane to be out of balance? That might explain why one wing crashed into the house fully engulfed in flames while the other wing was on the ground not in flames.

  6. The fire was caused ( maybe ) by a small maintenance door behind the engine open or leak of Vapor or Avgas . this Flamable situation could overstress the Wing and cause the loss of control .

  7. The NTSB will find the cause/causes of this tragic event, until then all we can do is speculate.

    Based on the video, audio, photo, and pilot information I have reviewed I’d speculate that there are two main possible scenarios (there are always contributing factors):
    1) Spatial disorientation
    2) Medical emergency
    This could be a contributing factor but I don’t think it will be the main cause due to the way the aircraft broke up in flight, which I believe was pilot induced.

    In one of the video’s it is clear that the 414 was intact and not on fire when first breaking through the cloud base, it did come apart and catch on fire before impacting the ground.

    In one of the videos/audio recordings (from a home security camera) there were no abnormal sounds coming from the engines until the pilot got into trouble.

    If the pilot was conscious and experiencing disorientation, he probably pulled up hard on the elevator control after breaking through the cloud base when he saw the ground, while in a dive (past redline), and over-stressed the aircraft. The typical scenario in this event is for the horizontal stabilizers (and some times along with the vertical stabilizer) to fail first, then the wings. The fuel was probably ignited by severed electrical wires shorting and sparking.

    According to reports, the pilot had previously had his licenses suspended twice:
    “The Federal Aviation Administration suspended the license of Antonio Pastini in 1977 and 1980, according to The Times, which cited records kept by the Library of Congress.”
    “The first suspension – for 120 days – came after he flew in cloudy, icy conditions from Las Vegas to Long Beach and lied about his credentials. The second was because his plane was not up-to date on inspections, had an expired temporary registration and was leaking brake fluid, according to The Times. The second suspension was for 30 days.”

    According to records the pilot was qualified, but was he instrument current, and proficient in the 414?
    “Personal Information
    Address is not available
    Medical Information:
    Medical Class: Third Medical Date: 7/2017
    BasicMed Course Date: None BasicMed CMEC Date: None
    Certificates Description
    Certificate: COMMERCIAL PILOT
    Date of Issue: 6/4/2008

    Even experienced, and high time pilots are not immune to mistakes.

    I had a customer/friend pilot who was instrument rated (but not current) crash his 210 while in IMC on final approach to Salt Lake City, killing all six on board. Airplane came apart in the air due to pilot induced over-stresses.

    Another customer (a retired airline captain with close to 30,000 hrs of flight time) crashed his 310 on departure due engine failure caused by fuel starvation because the fuel selectors were in the wrong position.

    It will be very interesting to read the final NTSB report in a year or two.

    Condolences to all impacted by this tragic event.

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