Four bodies and the scattered wreckage of a small civilian airplane were discovered in a remote canyon of Camp Pendleton on Monday, three days after the craft disappeared minutes following takeoff from John Wayne Airport on a medical mission to Mexico.
The twin-engine Piper Apache 23, carrying two physicians from UCI Medical Center in Orange, left Orange County in fog and dense clouds and lost contact 17 minutes later, when officials believe it slammed into the steep side of a 1,000-foot-deep canyon a few miles southeast of the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 5.
"It looks like they hit the north side of the ridgeline, lost a wing and cartwheeled over," said Robert Praytor, fire chief at the Marine Corps base.
The pilot was found in the remains of the fuselage, and the three others were ejected upon impact, officials said. The fuselage was partly intact, but the plane's nose and engine and one of its wings were torn off.
UCI Medical Center spokeswoman Fran Tardiff identified the physicians as Dr. Francis Markoe Dugan Jr., a 37-year-old Santa Ana father of two, and Dr. George Brauel, 34, of Fountain Valley. Dugan was assistant clinical professor of head and neck surgery and Brauel was chief resident in that department.
The two pilots were Anthony Shanks and Randy V. Breding, both of Sacramento, said a spokesman from LIGA International Inc., known as the Flying Doctors of Mercy, which had arranged the flight. It was part of an 800-mile medical mission involving 15 planes headed to Los Mochis, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
A San Diego County Sheriff's Department helicopter discovered the wreckage about 11:20 a.m. Monday while flying over the base. A rescue crew from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station rappelled down the dangerous cliff and rigged up pulleys and hoists to retrieve the bodies. The victims were lifted out about 5:20 p.m. and taken aboard a hovering helicopter.
Praytor said the plane went down about a mile east of Interstate 5 and two miles north of Las Pulgas Road.
The Piper Apache departed John Wayne about 9:20 a.m. Friday in poor weather conditions for visual flight rules, said George Petterson, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator. But he said it's too early to tell if weather contributed to the mishap.
The last radio transmission was made while the plane was about seven miles northwest of Oceanside at an altitude of 1,200 feet, when the pilot made contact with a communications center near Miramar Naval Air Station and requested a new radio frequency.
"We surmise that it crashed about 9:37 a.m.," said Fred O'Donnell, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman in Los Angeles. "It dropped from radar at that time in the vicinity of Camp Pendleton."
Federal investigators, delayed by the difficulty in reaching the site, were expected to visit the crash area today.
"We have a problem with the accident site because of the terrain," said the NTSB's Petterson, who postponed an investigation at least for one day. "Consequently, we had to put our on-scene investigation on hold."
Ray Hendrickson, president of LIGA in Orange County, saw Brauel and Dugan off at the airport on Friday and recalled that everything seemed all right until late Friday.
"When they didn't show up on Friday night in Mexico, we made some calls and initiated the search," Hendrickson said.
According to Hendrickson, Brauel had been on missions to Mexico many times in the last three years, but it was Dugan's first trip. The two doctors met for the first time on Friday.
"It's a tragic loss and we are just devastated," said Hendrickson, adding that he believed this was the first aircraft tragedy in LIGA's 60-year history. "Our thoughts and feelings and prayers go out to the families of the people on that airplane."
However, Walter Cason, president of the LIGA board of directors and a Riverside anesthesiologist and pilot, said this is the second fatal accident involving LIGA volunteers. Four men were killed in 1964 in a plane crash in Mexico, he said.
The plane was owned by pilot Shanks, according to the LIGA officials.
LIGA flies to Mexico on weekends with physicians and dentists who go at their own expense to provide free medical, surgical and dental care at seven clinics in Sinaloa and Sonora.
The twin-engine Piper, which seats four, had filed a flight plan before it left the Sacramento area to fly down to Orange County and pick up Dugan and Brauel. There was no flight plan for the second leg of the journey, Petterson said.
The pilots were both flight instructors and highly experienced, Hendrickson said. Shanks had made the Mexico trip on prior occasions.
Hendrickson, an Irvine resident and a psychologist who worked with Brauel on a few trips, described him as energetic and "always smiling." He said Brauel mostly went to El Fuerte and San Blas to perform facial surgery on poor villagers and migrants.
"He was always willing to go the extra mile," Hendrickson said. "He was so enthusiastic about doing work for people in Mexico."
Brauel was a 1989 graduate of UCLA Medical School.
"He's an example of the best society has to offer us," said David Lawson, a dentist and pilot who was been a LIGA volunteer for more than 10 years.
Dugan, a full-time UCI Medical School faculty member since last June, earned a medical degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1987 and did a surgical internship at Eastern Virginia Graduate School of Medicine. He did a one-year fellowship, including training in facial, plastic and reconstructive surgery, at UC Davis.
Dugan was a former chief emergency medical technician at the Veterans Administration medical center in Long Beach. His wife, Melissa, is expecting their third child.
Times staff writers Anna Cekola and Len Hall and correspondent Jeff Bean contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A San Diego County sheriff's helicopter Monday found four bodies and the wreckage of a small plane that disappeared Friday over a remote area of Camp Pendleton.
* Plane: A twin-engine, four-seat Piper Apache 23
* Itinerary: Left Sacramento on Friday morning, landed at John Wayne Airport to pick up passengers, took off at 9:20 a.m. for Mexico
* Weather: Visibility was poor due to rain and low clouds
* Last contact: Plane was seven miles northwest of Oceanside when pilot contacted tower to change radio frequencies; plane disappeared from radar at 9:37 a.m.
Sources: FAA, National Transportation Safety Board