2 Walk Away From Street Crash-Landing

Times Staff Writer

A student pilot and his instructor walked away unhurt Monday after their single-engine airplane lost power at 400 feet and crashed-landed on a street minutes after takeoff from Fullerton Municipal Airport. No one on the ground was injured.

The pilot, John Otey, 30, of Anaheim, was flying the Piper Warrior II for an instrument rating license, police said. He had 200 hours of flying time. Both the plane and the instructor, Mike Simmon, 21, of Norwalk, are with Aviation Facilities Inc. of Fullerton, Buena Park Police Officer Rich McMillen said.

Fullerton Airport Director Rod Murphy said he watched the aircraft from his office as it took off at 2:30 p.m., then suddenly crash-landed.


“The airplane was operating normally on its departure and had an engine failure,” Murphy said. “The pilot maneuvered to miss houses and buildings and aimed for the clear area.”

The plane glided over a vacant field about a quarter of a mile west of the runway as it dropped, according to witnesses at the scene. The plane’s propeller sliced a power line as the gray Piper smashed into the ground, missing a home by about 50 feet and plowing through a white picket fence.

The aircraft then spun sideways across Artesia Boulevard, coming to rest before the Buena Park Business Center, half a block west of Dale Street.

“I saw the wire come down first thing,” said Choong Nam, whose office is situated just a sidewalk’s width from the wrecked airplane. “Suddenly I saw the back of the crashed airplane. Then two men came out. I can’t explain to you how scary it was.”

The cause of the Piper’s engine failure was unknown, and the crash is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, authorities said.

Otey, the pilot, and his instructor were being questioned Monday afternoon by the FAA and declined to speak with reporters, said a woman who answered the telephone at Aviation Facilities.

Otey received praise from several quarters Monday for his maneuvering of the stricken airplane away from houses and buildings and onto the street.

“I’d say the pilot did one hell of a job,” said one crash witness, who declined to give his name.

“I hear the pilot did good work bringing the plane down,” said City Councilman Don Bankhead, a retired Fullerton police captain elected to the council last November, who has opposed any airport expansion or jet landings for noise and safety reasons. “It’s very fortunate that they walked away from it.”

Damage to the Piper Warrior appeared moderate. The nose cowling was crumpled and the severed power line was wrapped around the propeller. The landing gear also had crumpled, apparently on impact.

Other Crashes

The Fullerton Airport has been the site of several crashes in its 63-year history, the most recent on Sept. 20, when a Piper Cherokee 6 crashed into an industrial park on approach to the airfield.

A passenger in that plane was seriously injured, suffering a broken pelvis. The pilot, a part-time flight instructor, suffered moderate injuries.

On Oct. 17, 1987, the pilot of a Piper Cherokee Arrow lost control of his plane and struck a Buena Park apartment complex. No one else was injured but the pilot was killed.

In June, 1986, popular radio traffic announcer Bruce Wayne died when his Cessna Cardinal went down shortly after takeoff from the airport. Five months later, a plane crashed in the yard of an elementary school on Fern Drive, just 30 minutes after classes ended. There were no injuries.

These and other crashes have sparked residents’ opposition to the airport’s operations in recent years.

City officials have pointed out over the years that the airport was built long before the the neighborhood became a residential area and that those who moved there did so knowingly and at their own risk.

Referring to the facility’s past, airport director Murphy said Monday that no one has ever been killed on the ground by a crashing airplane. And for an airport with 170,000 takeoffs and landings a year, he said, its safety record is sound.

Controversy over the airport has diminished following the defeat of a 1986 referendum that would have banned jets from landing at the airport.

“We’ve been lucky we haven’t had more serious injuries and fatalities,” said Carl Stevenson, one of the organizers behind the failed referendum. “Obviously people are worried, concerned about planes flying over houses and businesses. The airport is tucked away in a densely populated area.”

But Stevenson added that he does not oppose the airport’s continued operation.

“I know everybody who flies out of the airport is concerned about maintenance,” he said. “I don’t mean to imply that anyone is slipshod here. But things break, no matter how good everyone’s efforts are.”

Ellen Fortney said she is just happy that the Piper Warrior missed her house, never mind the picket fence knocked down in her front yard.

Fortney said she was on her way home from work when she saw a helicopter hovering over her house, leading her to worry that something was wrong.

Standing in front of her home, Fortney said a few other planes have landed in the field behind her since she moved in 8 years ago. “But this is actually the closest one that’s ever come down.”

Even so, the airport doesn’t really bother her, Fortney said. Looking across the street at the ungainly Piper, resting awkwardly on its broken legs, she said of the two men who escaped injury, “I’m just glad they’re all OK.”