My uncle’s plane crash

My uncle Gary was in a fatal plane crash just a few months before I was born. He was only 17 years old and he was taking flying lessons with the hope of earning his pilot’s license. It must have seemed a perfectly safe and reasonable choice to his parents, as they lived close to the Van Nuys airport and his father was also a licensed private pilot.

Gary and his instructor took off from Van Nuys airport in the single-engine Ercoupe on Saturday, January 22, 1966. The Ercoupe has only two seats—Gary was seated in the left-hand seat and his instructor, Donald K. Carey, was seated in the right-hand seat. On their approach to the Santa Paula airport from the northeast, their plane apparently ran out of fuel just short of the airport. Their plane sputtered and lost altitude. The plane hit a eucalyptus tree in a residential backyard, and nearly hit two houses before it crashed into electrical and telephone wires. The plane made a hard landing on its right side, crushing the right wing and causing fatal injuries to Mr. Carey.

In the family history archives that I’m compiling are a couple of contemporary newspaper accounts of the accident. I’ve scanned these and included them below.

On the day of the crash, Gary was flying with his instructor in a single-engine Ercoupe. The Ercoupe was a made by an American company, Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO), from 1937 to 1968. According to Wikipedia, the Ercoupe “was designed to be the safest fixed-wing aircraft that aerospace engineering could provide at that time.” Below are a few photos of an Ercoupe in action (from The Armchair Aviator, which has a great set of photos of the Ercoupe).

The FAA’s Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing System (ASIAS, formerly the Accident/Incident Data System or AIDS) only tracks accidents since 1978, and their Historical Aircraft Accident Reports database only covers the period from 1934 to 1965. The NTSB, however, maintains a pre-1982 accident database that did have a record of the accident. According to the NTSB accident report entry, the plane was an Alon A-2 Aircoupe (a model of Ercoupe; see a brochure from the mid-1960s) with the registration number N5472E.

The brief NTSB report can be seen here. The NTSB report concluded that they were making a long final approach at too low an altitude, possibly because they had a hard time judging their distance and altitude due to sunglare (they were flying towards the sun at sunset), and the instructor failed to notice and/or correct the problems with their approach.

While the conclusions of the NTSB report state the proximal causes of the crash, they do not state the ultimate cause(s) of the crash. The description of the conditions that led to the unexpected loss of altitude is left out, thereby rendering an incomplete picture of the crash. This is not unlike stating that massive trauma from a high-speed impact caused someone’s death, and neglecting to state that the high-speed impact was due to being pushed off a bridge.

From what I’ve been able to determine, the reason that the plane was coming in too low on its final approach was that the plane’s engine was malfunctioning, making it unable to generate enough thrust to maintain proper altitude.

The Press Courier article shown above reported that the plane “was approaching the landing strip at the Santa Paula airport from the northeast when it lost power.” Additionally, The Press Courier reported that “a witness to the crash said he heard the engine sputtering and glanced up.”

In a recent post on the subject, Gary himself reported that the engine had failed:

Began taking flying lessons in summer of 1965. After soloing and with 30 cockpit hours total, on final approach the engine failed and the plane stalled into a ditch at the end of the runway. My instructor was killed and I was in the hospital with a concussion for three days, oblivious to what had just happened.

As to why the engine failed, he stated:

I was told that the arm to the float in the carburetor became detached, thus flooding the engine. The theory that the plane ran out of fuel is highly unlikely since I manually checked the fuel level during all preflight inspections.

Seen in this light, the accident determinations cited by the NTSB report are little more than red herrings:

  • Probable cause(s)
    • Dual student — misjudged distance and altitude
    • Pilot in command — inadequate supervision of flight
  • Factor(s)
    • Miscellaneous acts, conditions — sunglare
  • Remarks — aircraft observed making a long final approach at a very low altitude and into the sun.

A lack of sun glare would not have given the engine more power, nor would a different assessment of distance and altitude by the student, nor would increased supervision. The latter point is perhaps up for debate, as the instructor may have been able to find a better emergency landing site if it was clear they would not make the landing strip. As they crashed just yards before hitting the tarmac (more on the location below), he may well have believed that they would be able to land safely on the runway.

Concerning the precise location of the crash, two of the three statements about the location of the accident are in agreement, while a third statement, made by the police, points to a different location.

The accident location that I believe is incorrect is the one stated by police. In the article in The Press-Courier, the reporter notes that “Santa Paula police said the airplane crashed about 1,500 yards from the airport and a scant 20 feet from a house.”

The yellow lines in the photo below extend 1,500 yards from the northeastern edge of the airport, and indicate the range of locations that are 1,500 yards from the airport in the direction of the known final approach. The yellow star corresponds to the location of the accident according to the street address. Because the other two accounts of the crash location (below) are both more specific and in agreement, I will dismiss the “1,500 yards from the airport” statement as an incorrect piece of information given out in the immediate aftermath and confusion of the accident.

The Press-Courier account states that the plane “crashed into the street in the 400 block of South Ojai street.” The 400 block of South Ojai St. forms the northeast boundary of the airport (see aerial photo below). Gary’s statement that “the plane stalled into a ditch at the end of the runway” is consistent with the reported South Ojai Street location.

According to historical imagery available on Google Earth, the street was at least partially residential on the eastern side until sometime between 2007 and 2012, when the last residential structure was destroyed. The foundations of the last residential building are highlighted in the photo below with a yellow arrow. The residential backyards and their trees have long since vanished. There are two parallel rows of telephone and/or electrical cables nearby, identified in the photo below with white arrows. My best guess about the precise location of the crash is identified in the photo below by the red circle.

(Gary, if you’re reading this, please feel free to leave a comment below with any other details you may remember.  Thanks!)

UPDATE: I found photos of Gary and the plane that crashed on a recent research trip. You can see them here.

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