Local News

Friday, Dec 27 2013 02:12 PM

Tehachapi man and 8-year-old boy killed in fiery plane crash in Fresno

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BY PABLO LOPEZ AND MARC BENJAMIN Fresno Bee

A 72-year-old Tehachapi resident and an 8-year-old boy believed to be the man's nephew have been identified as the victims of a fiery plane crash near a Fresno airport Thursday evening.

Fresno County officials have identified the man as Timothy Lowell Farmer,whose borrowed single-engine plane may have clipped a tree on approach to Fresno's Chandler Downtown Airport.

The boy has been tentatively identified as Finn Thompson, who lives in the Fresno area, said Fresno County Chief Forensic Pathologist Venu Gopal. He said the identities will be confirmed through dental records, and he has been in touch with the victims' Fresno relatives.

Officials have said both occupants died when the plane crashed in the front yard of a home about 800 feet west of Runway 12. No one on the ground was injured and the house was not damaged.

Tehachapi resident George Novinger, the owner of the plane, said he was longtime friends with Farmer and had heard from the pilot late Thursday afternoon, about two hours before the plane went down. Novinger said his friend had logged many hours in the air and had previously owned a Cessna 172 before selling it and instead borrowing Novinger's plane.

"I just feel terrible for the parents of the young man who was with him, and for (Farmer) and his friends," Novinger said.

Novinger first met Farmer when Farmer was his student at Hoover High School in Glendale in 1959. They became reacquainted when Farmer moved to Tehachapi.

Novinger said Farmer and his nephew had planned to spend a few days in Monument Valley. He said Farmer was a Kiwanis Club member who dedicated a lot of his time to service.

"We'll miss him," Novinger said.

Fresno County Coroner David Hadden said Farmer's body was badly burned, and the child killed in the crash was less badly burned.

Fire spokesman Koby Johns said the plane flew out of Fresno -- it was not immediately clear whether it had taken off from Chandler -- and flew south to Tehachapi before they turned around and returned to Fresno.

Authorities believe the plane may have clipped a tree as it was attempting to land at the airport about 6:30 p.m., Johns said. The pilot tried to regain control of the aircraft as it traveled the length of the airport before it nosed down and crashed just beyond the runway.

Hadden said the pilot called family members to ask them to meet the plane at the airport shortly before he attempted to land.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the crash, with the NTSB taking the lead, said Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for FAA's Pacific Division. The NTSB was expected to be at the airport Friday.

Based on eyewitness accounts, the moments leading up to the crash appear to have been a desperate effort by the pilot to fix a rapidly deteriorating situation.

Joe Luna, 55, said he was standing on the front porch of a friend's house on the northeast corner of Thorne and Hawes avenues about 6:30 p.m. The house is near the south end of Chandler's runway.

Luna said he visits often and has seen many small planes circle over the neighborhood as they prepare to land. This time, Luna said, the plane circled once, then circled again.

On the second circuit, Luna said, the plane made an unusually sharp turn toward the runway -- "like he was in trouble."

The plane came in low and clipped a tall pecan tree in the backyard, Luna said. Branches were torn and fell to the ground. So, too, did parts of the plane, he said.

The plane staggered forward in the darkness. It flew past the Chandler terminal where, according to Johns, the boy's family was awaiting his safe arrival.

Chandler is not big as big-city airports go. Urban Fresno has encroached on its nooks and crannies. The plane veered away from the airport's runway, which lies at an angle between Kearney Boulevard and Whitesbridge Avenue.

Johns said he could only speculate what the pilot was doing at this point. Perhaps the pilot was trying to regain speed and stability, he said.

The plane headed past hangars on the airport's west side.

Chris Castello, 31, said he was standing outside his house on Ila Avenue, not far from the hangars, when he saw the plane. He said the plane swooped straight up, then suddenly plunged nose down.

Castello said he heard a boom, then saw flames.

The plane landed in the front yard of a house on a short stretch of West Avenue that ends at the airport.

Esmeralda Ortega was with her aunt and uncle when she heard the plane coming down and getting closer. She thought it was going to hit her uncle's house on this stretch of West. She heard her aunt yell, "Everyone get out."

Ortega said she saw the plane hit and catch fire: "It was ugly."

She said the plane, a mere two houses away, looked cut in half as if it had hit a tree in the front yard.

Police officers and firefighters responded.

Back at the house at Thorne and Hawes, Serena Orosco said she was trying to make sense of what had happened in the space above her backyard. She has lived in the house for more than 25 years and had just gotten off work after a 12-hour shift.

She said she didn't see the plane hit her tree. But, she said, it was clear from the shock of family members that something serious had happened.

Then she looked in the backyard, Orosco said. There, lying on the ground near an outdoor table, was a piece of an airplane. She said she could make out a word on it: "Cessna."

Orosco said she drove to the crash site. She said police initially told her to move on.

"I told them, 'No, you need to come to my house,' " Orosco said.

It was unclear Thursday night whether the plane shed still more debris before crashing. An airport official was checking the Chandler runway for debris Thursday evening.

City Manager Bruce Rudd said in a prepared statement: "It's a terrible accident. Our hearts and prayers go out to the family."

-- Jason Kotowski of The Californian, Claudia Elliott of Tehachapi News and Barbara Anderson of the Fresno Bee contributed to this story.

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