Drivers Spot Plane in Rearview Mirror

Times Staff Writer

Talk about something coming at you out of the blue.

When David Sarraf of Beverly Hills saw a crippled small plane about to smack into the rear of his car on the Ventura Freeway in Pasadena, about all he could do was put himself on autopilot.

“I can’t believe it, that a plane almost hit me. I’m still in shock,” he said Saturday as he described the crash-landing of a single-engine plane shortly before midnight Friday.

“I was swerving right and left. It felt like a dream. Everything was in slow motion.”


The aircraft, a 1951 Beechcraft Bonanza en route from Oregon to Fullerton, clipped a Jeep Cherokee as the pilot tried to land in the westbound lanes near Orange Grove Avenue. It spun 360 degrees and landed upside down near the median.

Paramedics extricated pilot Barry Baxter, 63, of Brea and passenger Dawn Hess, 48, of Downey from the crumpled fuselage.

Baxter was hospitalized with major injuries that were not believed to be life-threatening; Hess received minor injuries.

“There’s not a whole lot you can do if a plane is about to land on the freeway,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Francisco Villalobos. But he added that the late hour meant the normally busy freeway had only light traffic.

All lanes in both directions were closed for five hours while the wreckage was removed.

The CHP said the plane had “an unknown engine malfunction” and that both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were investigating.

The Jeep’s owner, Charles Redmond, 18, of Glendale was unhurt. But he was “in complete shock” as he and Sarraf huddled on the shoulder of the freeway and dialed 911.

Redmond, traveling west after dinner with his girlfriend in Monrovia, didn’t see the plane coming up behind his bronze 1997 SUV and thought he’d been rear-ended by a car. Pulling over, he spotted the plane wreckage and realized how close he’d come to disaster.

“I could have been squashed like a bug,” said Redmond, a recent graduate of La Salle High School in Pasadena who will attend USC in the fall.

For Sarraf, 31, who operates a snack-food business, the episode was doubly harrowing because he mistook Redmond’s vehicle for one being driven by his wife, Michelle, 28, whom he’d been following home from a family outing in Arcadia. She had their baby daughter in the back seat.

The couple had gone to a celebration marking their daughter Talia’s first birthday and the college graduation of Sarraf’s cousin.

Struggling to stay awake, Sarraf had glanced out the passenger window and was stunned to see the left wing of an airplane overtaking him in the next lane.

Sarraf and Redmond said the plane came up silently. The CHP estimated its speed at 90 mph. The cars were traveling about 65.

After barely missing Sarraf’s black 2004 sedan, the aircraft barreled toward Redmond’s vehicle.

“I was honking like crazy and flashing my brights to warn my wife, who I thought was in there,” he said.

When the wing hit the vehicle, “my heart sank and I started shaking,” he said. “I thought about my baby. I had tucked her in nicely in the [child] seat and I hoped the seat belt would hold tight.”

Relief replaced panic as he sped over to the Jeep and realized his mistake.

Saturday, he was counting his blessings. “I went to temple and prayed a lot,” he said.