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Vintage airplane experienced engine trouble before crash landing on 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills

Vintage airplane experienced engine trouble before crash landing on 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills
A vintage plane crash-landed on the 101 Freeway on Tuesday. The pilot survived, but traffic was backed up for miles. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The pilot of a small vintage plane with German fighter aircraft markings that crash-landed on the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills on Tuesday decided to set down on the roadway after the plane’s engine began to fail.

Rob Sandberg, 43, of Camarillo, a pilot for Alaska Airlines, had taken off from Van Nuys Airport on a practice flight when the plane’s engine began running rough, said Chris Rushing, president of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Condor Squadron, which owns the plane, a North American SNJ-5 (T-6).

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This type of aircraft was used by the U.S. Army Air Forces, Navy, Royal Air Force and others during World War II, according to historical reports. The plane was deemed airworthy in 1958, Federal Aviation Administration records show.

Sandberg has been a member of the Condor Squadron for more than a decade. The organization was formed in 1965 by a group of former World War II fighter pilots to honor those who have flown for the U.S. military.

Rushing said the engine continued to experience issues as Sandberg tried to fly back to the airport, so he looked for an open spot and set the plane down on the freeway. A video shot by a driver shows the aircraft flying low before it touched down, bounced up and then stopped at the center divider, where it burst into flames.

“We train for this as pilots,” Rushing said. “We’re always thinking about the worst-case scenario. We just hope it never happens.”

Los Angeles County firefighters arrived at the crash site near Liberty Canyon Road about 1:50 p.m. and extinguished the flames. Images tweeted by drivers on the freeway showed the vintage airplane in flames, emitting black smoke. No one was hurt in the crash landing.

Sandberg couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday, but the pilot told KABC-TV Channel 7 that he chose a section of the freeway where there weren’t any cars.

“The engine completely failed,” he told the station. “I was able to fortunately not hurt anybody, other than the airplane.”

The crash prompted the California Highway Patrol to close the freeway in both directions for about four hours as officials investigated and moved the plane. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.

Sandberg has been a pilot with Alaska Airlines for five years and is a first officer for the airline based out of Los Angeles, according to a company spokesperson.

The airline honored Sandberg with the Spirit of Community Caring Award in 2014 for his volunteer work with the Condor Squadron. A blog post on the airline’s website notes that despite having never served in the military, Sandberg was influenced by his father’s and grandfather’s experiences serving in World War II.

“I remember being around them and their World War II buddies, going to reunions and air shows, and that really shaped who I am,” he told the airline in 2014. “I grew up knowing a lot of the guys who were still flying World War II airplanes, and that always seemed really cool.”

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