Nicholas Baer, 12, was spending his Fourth of July bodyboarding with friends at Carlsbad State Beach, but that ended about an hour into the outing. There’s been a plane crash, a family friend told the Carlsbad boy’s mother over the phone.
“I think he got hit in the head by the propeller,” the friend said.
Baer recovered after having surgery that night.
The aircraft was a Piper PA-18 towing an advertising banner, and a federal report about the crash is expected this week.
Accidents involving “banner towing” are tracked by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.
Records show that there have been 25 aircraft accidents involving such planes in California in the last two decades, and more than 62% resulted in injury or death. Four accidents occurred in San Diego County and eight in Los Angeles County.
Aviation experts say banner towing isn’t necessarily dangerous, but planes fly at low elevations — usually above crowded areas — and the drag from towing a banner can put strain on the single-engine planes, which are typically used to fly advertisements.
On Sunday, the pilot of a banner plane was killed during a crash at Compton/Woodley Airport.
Enkone Goodlow, an artist who rents a hangar at the airport, said he and some spectators had watched the pilot repeatedly try to hook a Bud Light banner. The banner was tied to a mastpole on the ground and the pilot would fly by and try to snare it with a grappling hook dangling from the plane before pulling up.
“Usually, people get it the first time if not the second time, but it took [the pilot] seven times,” Goodlow said. “We thought it was not normal. I wondered what was going on when after the seventh successful hook, all of a sudden, his plane nosed to the ground. We ran full blast toward it, thinking we could pull him out.”
But they were too late. With the plane engulfed in flames, Goodlow said, he jumped on an airport-based firetruck and headed to the crash scene.
In May 2012, a Cessna 150 towing a banner crash-landed in San Diego Bay because of a mechanical malfunction. No one was injured.
According to reports from the NTSB, which conducted an investigation into the incident, “Both occupants reported that they did not have time to troubleshoot, due to low altitude.”
Incident records show that advertisements in the air can also distract surrounding pilots. Following a 2003 incident near Pearland, Texas, a pilot told NTSB investigators that he had been distracted while landing by banner towing activity adjacent to the runway. The pilot landed at the edge of the grass runway and struck a ditch, causing substantial damage to the plane.
Cities including Huntington Beach and San Francisco have tried to ban aerial ads in recent years for safety reasons or aesthetic purposes, but dropped the efforts in fear of lawsuits or pressure from the FAA, which regulates flight activity.
The cause of other California accidents vary. About a quarter were due to engine failure, records show.
“Cars quit on a freeway. Cars sometimes fail to start,” said Barry Bardack, chief flight instructor for the Golden State Flying Club at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, Calif. “Airplane engines have an amazing ability to revive midair, but they also occasionally fail.”
Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the FAA Western-Pacific Region, said in an email that the agency requires all pilots or companies to meet certain standards before banner towing flights can take place. An inspector will examine banner attaching devices or hitches to ensure that release cable mechanisms are functioning.
All pilots must have successfully completed a banner towing training program, have a reliable record of past flight experience and be able to demonstrate a sample banner pickup to FAA inspector, Gregor said.
“The most challenging part is picking up the message. Not towing it,” Oakley said. “It’s the part that creates the most excitement for a pilot.”
Planes usually take off without the banner, loop back around to the airport and align the plane between two poles, where the banner tow rope is suspended. If done correctly, Oakley said, a hook behind the plane latches onto the rope and pulls the banner into the air.
Times staff writer Ahn Do contributed to this report.