Plane Crash Claimed 3 College 'Nice Guys' : Accident: Flying Team members from Mt. SAC mourn fellow pilots killed when their craft went down near Lake Isabella.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Flying blind" means pilots rely on electronic instruments to navigate through areas of zero visibility.

For members of the Flying Team at Mt. San Antonio College on Tuesday, flying blind meant gathering around a television set at the team's headquarters at Brackett Field in San Dimas awaiting news of three teammates who did not make it back from a flight evaluation conference in Kern County.

"Look, we don't want to talk about it," one team member said as "As the World Turns" flickered silently on the big-screen TV. "We knew them, but we don't want to say anything."

The fog of uncertainty broke about 5 p.m. Tuesday when Capt. Wyn Selwyn of the Civil Air Patrol confirmed that wreckage found in a dead-end canyon near Lake Isabella in Sequoia National Forest was the Piper Cherokee Six carrying pilot Adrian Cardona, 29, of West Covina, Richard Otero, 22, of El Monte, and Oscar Del Castillo, 19, of Diamond Bar.

The cause of the crash is under investigation.

While family members of the victims consoled themselves privately, teachers and some teammates at Mt. SAC in Walnut talked to reporters about the three fliers.

"Adrian was a nice guy," said Byron Strope, who teaches courses on aircraft engines and electronics. Cardona was in Strope's electronics class a year ago. "He had a good understanding of aviation from a pilot's perspective. He seemed knowledgeable, and it was obvious he had acquired some piloting time."

College officials said Cardona had accumulated about 350 hours of flight time and earned a commercial pilot's license. Cardona had just transferred to Mt. SAC from Long Beach City College.

"All three students were relatively new to the college," said Jane Faulkner, the assistant to the president at Mt. SAC who fielded media questions. Faulkner said the three had been at Mt. SAC for only about two semesters.

Otero and Del Castillo were described by teammate David Todd as "nice guys."

"They were new to the program," David Todd, a 1993 graduate of Mt. SAC, said of the dead fliers.

Todd, who is pursuing a four-year degree in aviation management from Southern Illinois University's extension program at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Orange County, said he had spent time with all three in flight class and with the Flying Team, which is an extracurricular club affiliated with, but not part of, the college's aeronautics department.

"I didn't know them very well, but they showed up to all the team meetings . . .," he said. "We were having a great time getting to know each other.

"I knew Adrian a bit (better)," he said of Cardona. "He had a good head on his shoulders. He was a great guy."

Authorities reported that the Piper, which was rented from the Long Beach Flying Club at Long Beach Municipal Airport, took off from Kern Valley Airport at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. When the plane did not land Sunday evening, 14 Civil Air Patrol pilots mounted a search at 8 a.m. Monday.

Bob Tur, a helicopter pilot for KNX radio, spotted the wreckage at 11 a.m. Tuesday morning, the patrol reported. It took crews from the Kern County Sheriff's Department until late afternoon to arrive at the scene to confirm the find.

Deputies had to rappel down the canyon wall to the site of the wreckage, said George Patterson, a National Transportation Safety Board official investigating the crash.

The Piper went down about five miles out of Kern Valley in the Erskine Creek area between Laura Peak and Piute Peak, Patterson said.

The region has many dead-end canyons, said Gene Nelson of Nelson Aviation at the Kern Valley Airport. "It's not the kind of terrain you want to put an airplane in," he said.

The accident is the first fatal crash in the more than 30-year history of the Flying Team, college officials said. But another crash occurred last weekend when a student flying his mother back from Las Vegas clipped some power lines in a college-owned Cessna 152 as he was landing at an airfield near Hesperia, a flight instructor said. No one was injured, although the plane was damaged, the instructor said.

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