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Pilots and FAA Faulted in Crash That Killed Singer’s Band

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The pilot and co-pilot--and, to a lesser extent, a Federal Aviation Administration employee who gave them instructions--were officially blamed Monday for the plane crash on Otay Mountain last year that killed eight members of country singer Reba McEntire’s band.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the “probable causes” of the crash were “improper planning/decision by the pilot, the pilot’s failure to maintain proper altitude and clearance over mountainous terrain and the co-pilot’s failure to adequately monitor the progress of the flight.”

“Factors related to the accident were insufficient terrain information provided by the (FAA) flight service specialist . . . after the pilot inquired about a low-altitude departure; darkness; mountainous terrain; both pilots’ lack of familiarity with the geographical area, and the co-pilot’s lack of familiarity with the aircraft,” the NTSB said.

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The twin-engine executive jetliner slammed into 3,570-foot Otay Mountain at 1:43 a.m. on March 16, 1991, about three minutes after it took off from Brown Field, near the U.S.-Mexico border.

All 10 on board were killed, including pilot Don Holms; co-pilot, Chris Hollinger; tour manager Jim Hammon, and musicians Chris Austin, Paula Evans, Terry Jackson, Kirk Cappello, Michael Thomas, Anthony Saputo and Joey Cigianero. McEntire and other members of her entourage were on another plane.

A few minutes before the takeoff, Holms, who was not familiar with the San Diego area, twice radioed a nearby FAA flight service station, asking the specialist there whether there were unique departure instructions for pilots taking off from Brown, according to a transcript released by the NTSB. Flight service specialists advise pilots on flight plans but do not serve as air traffic controllers.

The same specialist, who has not been identified, answered both calls, but despite the conversations that ensued, Holms apparently remained uncertain about the instructions. He called a third time, reminding the specialist that he would be flying under visual flight rules.

Under visual flight rules, a pilot flies without a clearance from air traffic controllers and is not permitted to enter the controlled airspace known as a terminal control area (TCA).

Brown Field is situated just outside the large TCA surrounding San Diego’s principal commercial airport, Lindbergh Field. The TCA sector northeast of Brown includes a large wedge of airspace between 5,800 and 12,500 feet.

During his third conversation with the specialist, Holms complained that the instructions he was getting from the specialist would force him to fly “right into the TCA without a clearance,” according to the transcript.

“That’s right. Yeah, that’s right,” the specialist said.

“So, I would be better off if I headed . . . northeast and stayed down, say down below three thousand (feet). . . . Do you agree on that?” Holms asked.

“Yeah. Sure. That’ll be fine,” the specialist said.

The transcript indicated that the specialist never mentioned the mountainous terrain, and FAA officials said it was Holms’ responsibility, flying under visual flight rules, to know where the mountain was.

But Roger Woolsey, part owner of the Texas firm that chartered the jet, said the specialist shared the blame for the accident.

“Holms asked the guy if he could take off eastbound and stay at 3,000 feet,” Woolsey said. “It’s up to that guy to say, ‘No, there’s a mountain there.’ But he said it was OK. Holms did exactly what he told the flight service (specialist) he was going to do. So he hit the mountain. I don’t see how this other guy can escape any responsibility.”

The British-built Hawker-Siddley aircraft hit the mountain at the 3,400-foot level. Wreckage indicated that a wingtip of the jet creased the mountain, causing the plane to cartwheel, spill its fuel and crash, shattering on impact. Debris and human remains were scattered across the snow-capped peak.

While some people have proposed Brown Field as a replacement for Lindbergh, critics have cited Otay Mountain as an unacceptable hazard. A study released in 1990 warned that mountains to the north and east of Brown would pose problems during normal landings and takeoffs by passenger jets.


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