Medical plane broke up in air before crashing, kills 4

Kristin Bender
Associated Press

San Francisco — A small medical plane broke up in flight last month and then crashed into a densely forested Northern California mountain range, killing all four people aboard, federal investigators said in a newly released report Wednesday.

The Piper PA31 was carrying a flight nurse, a transport medic and a patient from Crescent City, near the Oregon border, to Oakland when the pilot said he saw smoke in the cockpit and declared an emergency July 29.

The pilot planned to return to Crescent City but the plane vanished from radar 5 miles north of the Arcata-Eureka Airport on the far northern coast, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said.

The NTSB’s early findings emerged from interviews with witnesses, an investigation at the crash scene and data collection. The report says both engines separated from their firewalls, but it was not immediately clear if that happened in flight or on impact.

A spokesman with the NTSB said the agency does not comment on preliminary findings. It could be up to a year before the final report is issued.

A woman camping nearby reported she heard an airplane circling overhead before it eventually flew to the west, which was followed by 15 seconds of silence. When she looked out her tent, she saw a large, dome-shaped flash, followed by another flash and a loud rumble.

“Unfortunately, this is the worst type of accident. This was a life-saving mission that was being undertaken that turned tragic,” said Jim Hall, a lawyer and safety advocate who was the chairman of the NTSB during the Clinton administration.

“I have long advocated that any of the aircraft that are performing these missions have two pilots because the pilots are multitasking carrying a surgery unit in the air and there is a lot of additional stress in regard to the flight mission,” he said.

The crash comes as the Federal Aviation Administration continues its efforts to improve the safety of the aircraft known as air ambulances. It began that effort after a series of deadly crashes.

For instance, 2008 “proved to be the deadliest year on record with five accidents that claimed 21 lives,” the FAA wrote in a fact sheet about the initiatives to improve safety.

On Feb. 20, 2014, the FAA issued new rules requiring air ambulances to have stricter flight rules and procedures, more training and additional on-board safety equipment, according to the FAA document.

In the July 29 crash, rescue teams led by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department found the wreckage hours later on land owned by a private timber company in the county about 280 miles north of San Francisco.

The plane was part of Cal-Ore Life Flight, which transports patients throughout Northern California and Oregon. Killed were pilot Larry Mills, 54; nurse Deborah Kroon, 49; paramedic Michelle Tarwater, 30; and patient April Rodriquez, 35. They were all from Crescent City.

Meanwhile, another preliminary report released by the NTSB on Wednesday said a small private plane lost control during takeoff last month and crash-landed in the Northern California town of Columbia, killing a family of four aboard.

The NTSB report says witnesses stated that they saw the 1958 Cessna 310B taxi onto a runway for departure. About 40 feet above the ground, the plane stopped climbing and started drifting to the left.

Witnesses to the July 27 accident say that the airplane then descended and crashed. It immediately burst into flames.

The four killed were the pilot, his wife and the pilot’s mother and stepfather, all from Sonora, California.

The Columbia Airport in Tuolumne County is about 130 miles east of San Francisco. It does not have air traffic control.