The air traffic controller repeated the warning to the pilot more than half a dozen times. Stop drifting, keep going and a chilling, urgent plea: “Low altitude warning, climb up immediately, get on the plane.”
Instead, the twin-engined plane crashed into a San Diego suburb, killing the pilot and a delivery driver and setting homes on fire. Now, federal investigators must try to figure out what caused the crash that left the neighborhood a puzzled and damaged.
A Cessna 340 pummeled a UPS van in Senti later Monday afternoon while preparing to land at Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in San Diego.
An elderly couple got burnt due to fire in the house. Neighbors helped the woman through the window. About a dozen other homes were damaged in the eastern San Diego suburb.
According to the website for a non-profit charity group called the Power of Love Foundation, the aircraft is owned and operated by Dr. Sugata Das, a cardiologist who worked in Yuma, Arizona, and went to his home in San Diego.
On a recording made by LiveATC, a website that monitors and posts flight communications, an air traffic controller repeatedly warns Das that he needs to climb to altitude. He also cautioned that the C-130, a large military transport aircraft, was overhead and could cause turbulence.
Das replied that he was aware.
The controller is later heard saying, “Looks like you’re drifting right, are you doing it right?”
“Correction,” replies Das.
Das asks if he has been cleared for the runway. The controller says, “I need you to fly,” warning him that he’s coming down a lot.
Das tells him that he is climbing. The controller urges him to climb again, and Das says he is climbing.
“Okay. Looks like you’re descending sir. I need to make sure you’re climbing, not descending,” says the controller.
Then the controller speaks more readily.
“Low altitude warning, climb immediately, get on the plane,” he says. “Please get on the plane.”
The controller repeatedly urged the aircraft to climb to 5,000 feet (1,524 m), and when it remained at 1,500 feet (457 m), the controller warned: “You seem to be descending again, sir.”
There is no reaction.
Agency spokeswoman Jennifer Gabris said an NTSB investigator arrived at the crash site Tuesday morning and will review radar data, weather information, air traffic control communications, airplane maintenance records and the pilot’s medical records.
Al Diehl, a former investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the recordings indicate the pilot was trying to deal with a major distraction or critical emergency on his own – breaking a basic rule that aviators should always be aware of everything to controllers. Something should be told.
“When you’re in trouble the first thing you do is call, climb up and confess — and he didn’t do any of the three,” Diehl said. “These are very basic rules that flight instructors tell their students.”
Diehl, who helped design the Cessna cockpit, said the plane has a complex system that can lead to fatal mistakes.
Diehl said Das’s ability to handle the aircraft in cloudy and windy weather could be complicated. Investigators will also see if there could be a medical emergency, something that an autopsy reveals.
Diehl noted that at the last minute the plane made a broad turn to the right as if trying to return to another airport that was close because something was wrong. Das did not mention this to air traffic control.
Robert Katz, a certified flight instructor, said he believed Das was “completely distracted.” Katz said the clouds were so low that the pilot had to use an instrument landing system while approaching.
“He doesn’t know which way is up,” Katz told CBS 8 in San Diego.
Das grew up on the west coast of India and earned a medical degree from the University of Pune. According to the Power of Love Foundation, he moved to Yuma in 2004 and founded Cardiovascular Practice. He leaves behind his wife and two sons.
UPS driver Steve Kruger, 61, lived in the Ocean Beach neighborhood of Ocean Beach and was on his regular route when he was killed. He plans to retire on October 22, his brother Jeffrey Krueger said.
Bhai said that he was extremely popular among his customers.
“At Christmastime, he really liked sweets and they were always bombarded with the stuff,” he told KNSD-TV. “They really appreciated him, and he always had fun with them. He was that kind of guy.”
“That was too much, you have to be positive,” Jeff Krieger said. “Things will always get better and don’t take life so seriously that it gets you down. Enjoy things.”
Krueger also loved skiing and other sports. He had bought a house near Mammoth Lake.
His brother said Kruger sent photos of himself wearing his brown uniform and holding a UPS package water-skiing and posing with the mammoth mascot for Mammoth Mountain ski resort.
On Tuesday, UPS held a moment of silence in Krueger’s honor, and the flag was lowered to half-staff outside the UPS Customer Service Center in San Diego.
“Those who knew Steve said he was proud of his work,” said a statement from the company, “and his positive attitude and joyful laughter lightened the most difficult days.”
Associated Press writers Elliot Spagett in San Diego and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.