Tower a Hazard, Pilots Warned
Flying a small plane into Fullerton Municipal Airport for the first time two years ago, Felix Porras carefully searched the skies for the 760-foot radio tower he had heard about.
Having seen it on his aviation charts positioned a mere 1 1/2 miles from the landing strip, he pulled the nose of his plane a little higher just to be cautious. Still, he said he didn’t see the tower until he was practically on top of it.
“It was pretty scary. The only thing that kept me from hitting it was the altitude information I had,” said Porras, a flight instructor at Rainbow Air Academy in Long Beach.
So after a Temple City couple’s single-engine Cessna crashed into the 1940s-era KFI-AM (640) tower Sunday morning, local pilots could only shake their heads. The accident underscores what they claim they’ve been saying for years: The orange-and-white tower is a menace to approaching pilots.
“It can reach up and grab you,” said Rod Propst, manager of Fullerton Municipal Airport. “I can’t think of any airport that I know of that has a 760-foot antenna that close to it.”
Jim and Mary Ghosoph, both 51, had been cleared to land their rented single-engine Cessna C-182 when it struck the tower about 9:45 a.m. They had taken off from El Monte Airport less than 20 minutes earlier, said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Josie Woolum. The plane crumpled the tower and then crashed in a warehouse parking lot.
The couple were thrown from the cockpit and killed instantly. According to Federal Aviation Administration records, the plane was registered to Lightning Aircraft Corp., an El Monte company that offers flying lessons and rents small planes.The tower -- more than five times the height of Disneyland’s Matterhorn -- is in La Mirada just north of the Santa Ana Freeway in an area dominated by warehouses and wholesale distribution companies. It has been there since 1947, before La Mirada was a city and the FAA even existed.For the region’s aviation students, Fullerton’s tower is an infamous landmark instructors talk about. FAA aviation charts label it an obstruction.
“When I was flying out of Long Beach, one of the first things the instructor said was: ‘Remember that tower!’ ” said Jim Bunck, past president of the Fullerton Airport Pilots Assn.
Veteran fliers say pilots who have done their homework should be able to avoid it. “It’s a potential threat, but if you study the charts and you go in, then it’s a nonissue,” said Bunck, 57. “We all stay clear of it.”
But a notation on a map doesn’t compare to flying by the tower. “It’s in the charts, but it doesn’t look as big of a deal as it is,” said Porras, 21. “You see it when you’re about to hit it.”
Propst, who has been airport manager for almost nine years, said local pilots have long wished the owners would add strobe lights to the tower, in addition to the flashing red bulb on the structure. “White strobes during the day would make it jump out at you,” he said.
The airport manager said he had written at least three letters in recent years to the antenna’s owners and recalled several promising conversations with the station engineer about four years ago. But Propst said he was told there were technical problems with adding a strobe.
And after both of Fullerton’s airport advisory committees passed resolutions in 2001 asking the radio station managers to add strobes, pilots quit asking.
Greg Ashlock, general manager of KFI-AM, said the tower has all of the lighting required by the FAA and Federal Communications Commission. KFI is owned by Clear Channel Communications, which bought the transmission tower four years ago from Cox Enterprises.
Ashlock, who has managed the station for three years, said he was not aware of specific complaints levied by local pilots.
The tower is the station’s main transmitting tower for 14 Western states. The crash knocked the radio station off the air for about an hour before it resumed broadcasting from a backup antenna. The station has not decided whether the tower will be rebuilt.
“That tower was an accident waiting to happen,” Porras said. “Hopefully they’ll do something about it now.”