Local News

Wednesday, Sep 07 2011 10:30 PM

NTSB confirms witnesses reported plane "buzzed" home

BY jason kotowski Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

The plane circled a house and then dropped into the canyon, and Donna Moran had a feeling it wasn't coming back out.

It was flying too low. Plus, pilots never head into the canyon, and for good reason, Moran said.

She became concerned as soon as the craft turned south instead of north back toward Mountain Valley Airport, and before long her fears of disaster were realized.

"You could hear trees cracking and then kind of a boom, and then the fire started," she said Wednesday.

That fire, named the Canyon Fire, has scorched more than 14,000 acres since Sunday morning's crash and destroyed a dozen homes and 18 other buildings in Old West Ranch near Tehachapi. The two people aboard the plane were killed.

While it could take six months to a year for the National Traffic Safety Board to conclude its investigation of the cause of the crash, witnesses have said the pilot flew low over a friend's house by way of greeting -- an activity called "buzzing" -- just before the crash.

NTSB spokesman Nicholas Worrell confirmed Wednesday that investigators had received reports that the plane was buzzing a home before the crash.

With an investigation that could take months, it's too early to know whether that action contributed to the crash.

Moran, the witness, said the pilot circled the home and quickly "wiggled" the plane's wings by tilting one way and then the other. A newspaper was thrown from the craft, she said.

Moran's three brothers are pilots, and one of them buzzes her home whenever he flies over, but he never descends as low as Sunday's plane, she said.

And she said she's never heard of a pilot going into the canyon at Old West Ranch.

Trace Robey, another crash witness, said winds in the canyon are strong enough to impair a plane's ability to climb. She's never witnessed someone buzz a house before, but since Sunday neighbors have told her it's a common practice.

It's not one Robey approves of.

"I want it to be well known that (buzzing) is not acceptable to us," she said of the Old West Ranch community.

The plane's engines sounded fine and there was no indication the plane was struggling leading up to the crash, Robey said.

Buzzing

Buzzing is a practice as old as aviation itself.

Some pilots do it, some don't, and to get an accurate answer on just how prevalent the practice is you'd have to ask individual pilots, said Michael Harmon, general manager of the Rocket Shop Cafe on South Union Avenue.

Harmon's father, John Harmon, is a longtime fixture at Bakersfield Municipal Airport with his Harmon Rocket LLC kit airplane company.

"It's just simply flying over an area to get someone's attention," Michael Harmon said.

Worrell of the NTSB did not immediately have statistics on buzzing, and wasn't sure if that was something the NTSB tracked.

The victims

The two men killed in the crash have been identified as Walter Johnson, 72, of Pomona, and John Nuckolls, 55, of Claremont. It's not yet known who was the pilot.

Nuckolls' brother, Steve Nuckolls, said his brother and Johnson took off from Upland and flew over a friend's house in Tehachapi, according to KERO Channel 23. He told KERO that neighbors reported seeing the men flying very low with the landing gear down.

Nuckolls told KERO that his brother leaves behind a wife and three children.

A representative of Johnson's family contacted The Californian Wednesday and said the family was waiting to learn more about the crash before speaking to the media.

Worrell of the NTSB said the wreckage has been recovered and taken to Pearblossom, Calif., where investigators will examine it. Much of the plane, including both engines, was recovered.

"We're working and trying to gather as much data as we can," Worrell said.

Investigators will examine the wings, engines and basically every component of the plane to determine what happened, he said.

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