Sky Divers’ Plane Crashes at Perris; 16 Die


While friends and fellow jumpers watched in horror, a twin-engine plane loaded with sky divers slammed nose-first into a grassy field at a rural Riverside County airport Wednesday, killing 16 people and seriously injuring six others.

The impact of the crash at the Perris Valley Airport, about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, hurled many passengers to the front of the crumpled aircraft and cracked off its wings. Most of the survivors apparently were toward the rear portion of the plane, cushioned from death by the bodies of their companions.

"(The plane) spun around and veered to the right and crashed right into the ground,” said airport worker Julio Henao, who witnessed the crash. “It was very tragic. People were just dying and dying.”


Among the dead were three veteran jump instructors and three video camera operators who were going to film the divers’ planned mid-air ballet, according to officials from the Perris Valley Sky Diving School.

Also on board were a four-member sky-diving team from Holland and two four-member California teams, all in training for a national competition later this year. One person who had never parachuted before was on board. Authorities did not release a complete list of the dead and injured.

Perris Valley is hub to one of the nation’s busiest and most popular parachuting areas and attracts visitors from all over the world.

Witnesses said the propeller-driven De Havilland Twin Otter took off from the airport’s single runway, rose 50 to 70 feet in the air, then veered sharply and plunged to the ground. Several reported hearing a throttling or “feathering” sound from the aircraft’s engines moments before the crash. Feathering changes the angle of the propeller blades on an engine.

One witness, a flight instructor, said he thought the right engine may have stalled.

From a nearby jump center, friends and other bystanders watched the crash, then rushed to the wreckage in a desperate attempt to save lives. From inside the wreckage, moans and screams could be heard.

“It was mayhem,” said Mark Moore, 35, a Perris resident who lives a quarter mile from the crash site. “People were screaming. . . .

“I’d say two-thirds of (the victims) were still alive (after the crash) in one form or another. They died right there on the ground.”

One survivor crawled from the wreckage, asking whether his friends were all right. A pilot was wedged in the fuselage, apparently dead; another lay sprawled on the ground in front of the Twin Otter’s cracked nose.

Within minutes of the crash, several dozen people from the airport’s collection of sky-diving schools and parachute clubs swarmed to the southwest edge of the runway where the wreckage lay in a field of foxglove and mustard grass.

Wayne Kunze was one of the first on the scene. His company, Ultralight Squadron of America, has a trailer a short distance from the runway. He watched the Twin Otter’s takeoff and knew there would be trouble, he said. Kunze piled into his pickup truck and rushed to the wreckage.

“I saw so many broken necks and backs and arms and legs,” he said, pausing, his head dropping to gaze at his hands. “I still have blood on my hands.”

Among those wandering in the crowd that gathered was LeRoy Guilford of Riverside, whose brother, Rowland, piloted the doomed plane.

“He’s loved flying since he was a kid,” Guilford said of his brother. “He’s an extremely meticulous pilot when it came to safety.”

Guilford said he was hoping “against hope” that his brother was OK. Officials would not confirm that Rowland Guilford was among the dead or injured. Only when LeRoy overheard a television reporter interviewing a witness who described seeing a dead pilot did he realize his brother didn’t make it, he said.

Professional rescue workers arrived soon after the crash, placing the bodies under white plastic tarps about 20 feet from the fuselage. Meanwhile, helicopters airlifted the badly injured survivors to three nearby hospitals.

Fifteen people died at the crash site. A 16th died in surgery a few hours later, according to officials at Riverside General Hospital.

Although rescuers initially feared a fire or explosion due to a leaking fuel tank, none occurred. All of the injuries came from the force of the impact. Planes used for sky-diving often do not have seats, but under Federal Aviation Administration regulations, passengers must be restrained on takeoff.

An official with the Perris Valley Sky Diving School, which leased the plane, said the divers obeyed the rules and used both restraining belts and helmets.

Nevertheless, some enthusiasts of the sport say it is not uncommon for sky divers to forgo use of restraints. Republican state Sen. Marian Bergeson, 64, who represents the Riverside area, has gone sky-diving and said she was unnerved when she saw the plane had been stripped of seats and belts.

“I’m sure there will be questions asked,” she said. “They will look at whatever precautions they might want to take.”

The image of the sky diver is one of courage and daring. At the Perris Valley school, several of whose members were lost in Wednesday’s crash, the pros emphasized that death this time came in a plane accident, not a sky-diving accident.

“They are people who have an overwhelming love of life,” chief instructor Jim Wallace said of parachutists. “They are trying to live life to the fullest.”

Around Wallace, inside the Spartan headquarters of one of the nation’s leading sky-diving schools, grim-faced jumpers and friends milled about, some hugging each other, some weeping.

“We all know people on the plane,” said Mark Sechler, 37, a 15-year veteran of the skies. “This is a family. People know it can happen, but you hope it never will.”

Perris Valley is especially popular because of its weather and wind conditions. An estimated 100,000 jumps a year take place in Perris Valley.

FAA and National Transportation Safety Board investigators arrived at Perris Valley Wednesday to begin their investigation of the crash. Although no official causes were released immediately, some aviation experts said the sudden dropping of one of the Twin Otter’s wings appeared to indicate a “stall"--when a wing loses lift because of insufficient airspeed.

Engine failure may also cause a stall because the plane suddenly loses power and airspeed. And, the heavier the load on the plane, the more airspeed it needs to take off properly.

Two factors may complicate the NTSB’s investigation of the cause of the crash. The plane was not equipped with either a cockpit voice recorder or a flight data recorder. The so-called “black boxes” are not required on the type of plane that crashed, said Fredrick O’Donnell, an FAA public affairs spokesman in Los Angeles.

O’Donnell said the Twin Otter that crashed had no record of any incidents or accidents, and he praised the Canadian-built vessel’s flying ability and general safety record.

In September, 1989, a De Havilland Twin Otter loaded with sightseers returning from a flight over the Grand Canyon crashed on a landing approach, killing eight passengers and two crewmen and injuring 11 others. Improper piloting techniques and inadequate crew coordination, were the probable cause of that crash, according to the NTSB.

On Aug. 7, 1989, Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.) who was chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger, was flying in a Twin Otter from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to Fugnido, a refugee camp on the Sudanese border, when the plane he was in crashed, killing him and 15 others. The plane had no defects and the cause of the crash was attributed to bad weather and improper flight preparation, according to the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority.

Previous U.S. sky-diving crashes have taken many lives: 17 died in a 1985 crash in Butts County, Ga., the worst on record; 14 died in a 1982 crash near Taft, Calif.

Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Victor Merina in Perris; Mike Ward in Riverside; Tracy Wilkinson, David Reyes and Paul Feldman in Los Angeles.