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Pilot Dies in Crash of His Home-Built Plane at Sea

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A single-engine experimental airplane crashed in the ocean in heavy fog off Santa Monica shortly before noon Monday, killing the pilot.

William Wallace Reid, 72, a Westside architect of condominiums and apartments and the son of silent film star Wallace Reid, lost contact with the Santa Monica Airport control tower about 11:30 a.m. He had left the airport about half an hour earlier, said Santa Monica Airport Director Jeff Mathieu.

A helicopter pilot for a radio station found the remains of Reid’s home-built Long-EZ about 11:50 a.m. roughly two miles west of the Santa Monica Pier. KNX’s Bob Tur, a friend of Reid, said he was heading to Newport Beach to cover a fire when Santa Monica Airport tower officials asked him if he would fly over the area to look for Reid.

Tur said Reid’s body surfaced about 10 minutes later.

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Although the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash and officials would not speculate on the cause, Tur said he believes Reid became disoriented in the heavy fog and crashed.

“The fog was almost translucent,” said Tur, “the kind that you wouldn’t know you were in it until you already were in it. The fog was changing so quickly.”

Venice Lifeguard Capt. Don Rohrer said visibility at the coastline was about three-quarters of a mile at the time of the crash.

Monday’s crash was the fifth since last July involving planes heading for or departing from Santa Monica Airport, and the second in five months involving an experimental plane from the same airfield.

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In October, a home-built Wheeler Express plane crashed into two houses in West Los Angeles after the pilot reported engine problems. No one was seriously injured in that crash.

Afterward, Santa Monica Airport officials sought a ban on experimental aircraft, but the Federal Aviation Agency, which regulates all airports, refused. The FAA classifies all home-built planes as experimental, which means they cannot be used commercially. Even so, they must still be certified by the FAA as airworthy.

Mathieu said the crashes of the two experimental planes are not comparable. While the Wheeler Express was recently developed, the Long-EZ has been around since 1979.

Built primarily of Styrofoam, epoxy, fiberglass and plastics, the 17-foot long, 700-pound Long-EZ is tailless and has a rear-facing engine. It is light, free from corrosion, fuel-efficient and nearly stall-proof, according to flight instructors and owners of the plane.

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The Long-EZ was designed by Burt Rutan, who also designed the Voyager plane that circumnavigated the Earth in 1986 on a single tank of fuel.

The biggest single concentration of Long-EZs is believed to be at Santa Monica Airport, where a group of about 35 owners and builders meets regularly. Rutan stopped selling Long-EZ kits in 1985, citing liability concerns, and any craft built after that has been made from plans obtained from previous builders. Officials were unable to determine Monday whether Reid’s plane was made from an original kit.

Tur said that Reid loved to fly.

“Bill died the way he wanted to die,” Tur said. “Bill didn’t want to die in a retirement home or in a hospital. He said that if he was going to die he wanted to die flying.”

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