2 Die as WWII Plane Crashes Into Chapel at El Toro Air Show

Times Staff Writers

A vintage World War II trainer airplane participating in an air show at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station crashed into an empty chapel at the base Saturday, killing the pilot and passenger. No one on the ground was hurt.

According to Marine officials, the single-engine plane, a privately owned AT6-SNJ, had just taken off and was preparing to fly over the 36th annual air show when it apparently lost power, snagged a power line, smacked into the street and then slid into the chapel.

The pilot was identified as Merrel Richard Gossman, 55, of Canoga Park, a former Marine pilot who had flown for United and Aloha airlines. The passenger was identified as Robert G. Arrowsmith, 25, a Navy hospitalman stationed at the base's medical clinic.

In Condor Squadron

Marine spokesman Lt. Peter D. Larato said Gossman and Arrowsmith were members of the Condor Squadron, a club of former fighter pilots who perform mock dogfights in the vintage planes at air shows. Gossman owned the plane, a military scout training craft used during World War II.

Thousands of people who were lined up in their vehicles to enter the base for the annual show watched as the two-seater aircraft narrowly missed a gymnasium at the facility's northwest corner. The crash ignited a fire that destroyed the white-windowed chapel built in 1946.

Witnesses said they saw the aircraft performing loops and barrel rolls before it plunged out of sight, and assumed the pilot was practicing stunts before the air show.

But Master Sgt. Jack Michalski said the pilot "did not do any stunts of any type."

He said the plane had just taken off about a mile away from the church and was preparing to fly over the air show's spectator area another 1 1/2 miles away when it apparently lost power.

"He did a left turn and then went into a spin," Michalski said, "and then went into a spin stall. The motor stalled and he was spinning, but that was not a stunt. He was in trouble at the time."

Capt. Gordon Read, the base chaplain, said no one was in the chapel when the plane crashed shortly before 10 a.m.

Florist Left Just in Time

A man delivering flowers was on the church grounds when the plane plunged through the chapel, its engine pummeling through a wall a few feet from the altar, Read said.

The florist, Gary A. Downe of Tustin, was not injured, although he was visibly shaken, according to officials who interviewed him.

"What I am told is that he had just delivered flowers to the chapel, had walked out and had been out about 15 seconds before the plane crashed," Michalski said. "One very, very lucky person."

"From what witnesses say, the plane appeared to lose power, struck some power lines, careened into the street and slid into the chapel," Michalski said. "The roof (of the chapel) was destroyed by the fire, not the impact of the crash."

The air show had not officially started at the time of the crash, Michalski said, but the pilot was preparing to fly over the crowd, signaling his arrival.

Inquiry Under Way

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the crash.

Read said another chaplain phoned him at home shortly before 10 a.m. with news of the crash. He arrived a short time later and stayed until long after the victims' bodies were carried out of the charred and blackened building on stretchers.

"It was shocking," Read said of how he felt upon arriving at the church, "just shocking to see."

He stood in uniform, talking with reporters and military personnel on a lawn across the street from the still-smoldering building. "It's put a bit of a cloud over the air show, and that's a shame."

All weekend services--including a Saturday afternoon Mass and Sunday morning Protestant and Eastern Orthodox services--were canceled, Read said. He said the chapel is generally used only for weddings and other activities on Saturday but nothing had been scheduled because of the air show.

'Wow, It Crashed!'

Grant Howlett, 24, of Fullerton was waiting in his car with a friend to watch the show when he saw the aircraft go down.

"We saw the smoke and said, 'Wow, it crashed!' Everybody got out of their cars, stunned."

Parts of the airplane were strewn about the lawn outside the small, wood-framed chapel. Damage was estimated at $476,000, a military spokesman said.

Gossman, a floor-covering contractor, was the first to take off among a number of Condor Squadron members that were to participate in the show, Michalski said.

A wry-humored man, Gossman once flew his AT-6 from Van Nuys to London and back by way of Canada, Iceland and Greenland alone and, last year, remarked dryly: "Lindbergh didn't take anybody."

The club is based at the Van Nuys Airport and has about 40 members. In keeping with the era of the vintage plane, the squadron's clubhouse is decorated in tan and green camouflage and modeled after a World War II European fighter squadron headquarters. The planes parked at the clubhouse are divided in half as "good guys" and "bad guys"--Americans and Germans. During shows, the pilots stage mock air battles and appear to be dropping bombs while someone on the ground sets off fireworks that look like explosions.

After the crash, there was a rumor that other club members had wanted to carry on with their performance in the show but that officials grounded the group until the investigation is completed. Marine officials would not confirm that.

Gossman and Arrowsmith were the fifth and sixth club members to die in flying accidents since the Condors were founded in 1962.

The three-day air show, which is expected to draw 250,000 spectators, continued as scheduled Saturday. In fact, other planes were in the air within minutes after the crash. Most of the spectators towing beach chairs and ice chests into the viewing area said they did not know about the crash.

Times staff writers Ray Perez and T.W. McGarry contributed to this story.

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