A pilot and his passenger were critically injured Tuesday when their single-engine plane heading for Fullerton Airport crash-landed on a busy street, narrowly missing several cars.
Pilot Pete Fennell, 30, a California Highway Patrol officer from Orange, had radioed the airport tower that he was experiencing trouble and requested permission to land moments before he crashed at 2:37 p.m. at the intersection of Malvern Avenue and Gilbert Street, officials said.
The craft was traveling at about 85 m.p.h. when it touched down, careening past a traffic signal that sheared off its right wing, said Fullerton city spokeswoman Sylvia Palmer Mudrick. The plane then spun around and slammed into a telephone pole as drivers sped to safety, Mudrick said.
"We looked up and saw the plane coming down," said an incredulous Brian Fernandez, 16, of Fullerton, who was driving home with his mother when he saw the small craft coming toward them. "The cars just flew out of the way. . . . It came down right in front of us. I couldn't believe it was happening."
Several onlookers, including a Fullerton pilot whose car was almost hit by the plane, helped the injured men from the aircraft. Fennell and passenger Jeffrey Scott Brown, 27, of Mira Loma, who was briefly unconscious after the crash, were taken to the emergency room at UCI Medical Center in critical condition.
Hospital spokeswoman Fran Tardiff said Fennell was undergoing surgery late Tuesday night and had suffered two broken legs and a severe laceration on his right leg. Brown, whose condition was upgraded, was listed in serious but stable condition and transferred to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Anaheim Hills.
Fullerton Police Department Lt. Tony Hernandez said the initial investigation indicates Fennell worked for the CHP in South Los Angeles and did not own the plane. Hernandez said early indications are that the plane might have run out of gas. Several CHP officers visited UCI Medical Center late Tuesday to learn word of their friend and co-worker.
Mudrick said the pilot called the airport tower moments before the crash to say he was having problems. The plane is not based at the airport, Mudrick said, and initial reports indicate it had taken off from Long Beach Airport.
Some onlookers said the plane made sputtering noises shortly before it crashed, and the lack of gasoline near the crash site furthers speculation that it might have run out of gas.
David Son, 11, of Fullerton said he was outside during gym class at Fern Drive Elementary School when he saw the plane flying above.
"I heard it making some weird noises. It was going and then it started making banging noises. I really didn't think it would crash. I was really surprised."
Officials credit Fennell with taking care to pilot the crippled aircraft to avoid a tragedy.
"The pilot was steering it the whole way down. He flew the airplane under control as best he could. Obviously, there was a problem, but he did a good job," Fullerton Airport Director Roland Elder said.
Elder said he did not want to speculate the cause of the accident but said that normally if the engine is running, the propeller would be bent. The propeller on the crashed plane was not bent, and he noted that the fuselage of the Piper craft was intact.
Elder said the pilot and passenger likely escaped with their lives because of the build of the Piper aircraft.
"Those planes are built to crash; they aren't made like cars," he said. "They are insulated with steel."
Fullerton Airport has about 160,000 takeoffs and landings of small airplanes annually, Elder said.
FAA inspector Dawn Grande, who was called to the scene, said the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate and determine the cause of the accident.
There have been more than 22 crashes at or near Fullerton Airport since 1985, killing five people and injuring 10, all aboard planes. The most recent crash came in July, when a pilot and passenger were critically injured when their airplane crashed and caught fire shortly after takeoff.
A spate of crashes in 1992 sparked Buena Park Mayor Rhonda J. McCune to call for the airport's closure or at least limit takeoffs and landings over her city.
Times staff writer Rene Lynch contributed to this report.