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Douglas Hurt in Fatal Air Crash : Santa Paula: Two men die when a helicopter carrying the actor collides with a small plane after lifting off.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Two men were killed and three others, including actor Kirk Douglas, were injured Wednesday when a helicopter and a small plane collided above Santa Paula Airport.

Douglas, 72, was taken first to Santa Paula Memorial Hospital and later was flown to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he was listed in satisfactory condition Wednesday night. Officials in Santa Paula said he suffered head cuts and a possible broken rib.

Also aboard the copter was Noel Blanc, 52, son of the late Mel Blanc, the legendary master of cartoon voices. Blanc was in serious condition in the intensive-care unit of the Santa Paula hospital with chest injuries and a leg fracture. Blanc, also a cartoon voice and producer of commercials, owned the helicopter and reportedly was at the controls.

The third occupant of the helicopter, Beverly Hills Police Officer Michael Carra, was treated at Santa Paula Memorial for cuts and bruises and released.

Both men on the plane were killed. Witnesses identified the pilot as 46-year-old Lee Manelski of Santa Paula, a veteran stunt-flying instructor and airline pilot. His passenger was an 18-year-old man, officials said, but they withheld his name pending notification of relatives.

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The crash occurred about 3:30 p.m. just after the Bell JetRanger helicopter carrying Douglas, Blanc and Carra lifted off the airport helipad. Instead of heading south over the Santa Clara riverbed--the normal route for helicopters--it apparently flew north over the airport’s only runway and into the path of a Pitts Aerobatic that was taking off with Manelski and the other man.

“The plane attempted to take evasive action and hit the rotors of the helicopter,” said Bill Nash, a spokesman for the Santa Paula Fire Department.

The silver-colored helicopter, minus a rotor, plunged 20 to 40 feet, hit the runway and turned on its side. The red, white and blue plane crashed about 200 feet farther down the runway before flipping over and bursting into flames.

“As the airplane came down, little pieces began flying around the runway,” said Ramon Plascencia, an airport employee. “There was some fire coming out of it. Then it exploded. They never had a chance.”

It took firefighters with chain saws 90 minutes to remove the bodies from the wreckage of the plane.

A paramedic at the scene said Douglas, Blanc and Carra were disoriented and told him that they didn’t know what had happened. “They knew there was an accident but not why it happened,” paramedic Jason Johnson said.

But Police Sgt. Mark Trimble said all three men were alert and talking with hospital staff when they arrived about 4 p.m.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are expected to examine the crash scene today, Santa Paula Police Chief Walt Adair said.

The airport, a general-aviation field on the southern edge of Santa Paula, is an uncontrolled facility with no tower or air-traffic controllers, officials said.

At uncontrolled airports, there is a single radio frequency by which all pilots are supposed to communicate, reporting their location and intentions--"Pitts N1234 departing runway 2,” for example.

But pilots at uncontrolled airports are not required to have a radio or to use one. Pilots are expected to look carefully to make sure the airspace is free of other aircraft as they prepare to take off or land.

On Wednesday, “The helicopter apparently drifted over the runway,” Airport Manager Will Morte said. “Normally they go toward the river.”

“He got too close to the runway,” Plascencia said of the copter pilot. “They didn’t see each other until the last moment.”

The Pitts is a small, fast aircraft that is favored for aerobatic flying and air-show performances. But sources familiar with the plane say visibility is limited at ground level because the plane sits with its tail low, and the engine cowling blocks the view ahead. Typically, the pilot must zigzag down the taxiway, alternately looking out one side and then the other.

Trimble said Douglas was in Santa Paula to confer with a local woman about a book. “After this they’ll definitely have something to write about,” Trimble said.

The picturesque downtown area of Santa Paula, a town of 25,000, has become a popular place for filming movies and television shows, and its airport has become a haven for celebrities eager to get away from crowded landing fields in Los Angeles, including actors Gene Hackman and Cliff Robertson.

Steve McQueen, who lived in the city for three years before his death, “used to call Santa Paula Airport ‘my kind of country club,’ ” said Doug Dullenkopf, owner of Screaming Eagle Aircraft Sales at the airport.

But Dullenkopf said he had never seen Kirk Douglas at the airport.

Douglas is well-known for playing robust heroes such as the Roman slave in 1960’s “Spartacus.” His physical characteristics, including a cleft chin, razor-sharp cheekbones and jutting jaw, led to roles as Viking, cowboy, lover, fighter, artist and gladiator.

Among Douglas’ more than 70 films are “A Letter to Three Wives,” “Ulysses,” “In Harm’s Way,” “Seven Days in May,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Lonely Are The Brave,” “The Arrangement,” “The Fury” and “Paths of Glory.”

He is scheduled to be honored next month by the American Film Institute, which has awarded him its “Lifetime Achievement Award” for 1991.

About 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Douglas was wheeled to a helicopter that would transport him to Cedars-Sinai. The actor sat upright, aided by his son Peter. “He’s fine,” Peter Douglas said. “He’s lucky to be alive.”

Noel Blanc is the cartoon voice of some of the “Looney Tunes” characters created by his father, including Sylvester the cat and Tweetie. Dan Vinokur, a friend of Blanc and fellow aviator, said Blanc is “an extremely capable pilot.”

Manelski, the plane’s pilot, was described by Dullenkopf as a “very safe pilot. He was not a hot-dog pilot or a showoff.”

A pilot since 1962, Manelski was a first officer with Trans World Airlines and a member of the U.S. aerobatic flight team. He had planned to journey to the Soviet Union soon to fly with a Russian team.

In an interview with The Times, last year, Manelski said he flew about 25 days a month. “Flying is almost like a fix,” he said. “I have to have it.”

This story was written by Gorman, based on reporting by Times staff writers O’Donnell, Vivian Louie, Psyche Pascual, Richard O’Reilly and Tina Daunt and correspondents Christopher Pummer and Sharon Bernstein.


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