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NTSB report on Watsonville mid-air plane crash shows pilots' futile attempts to avoid collision

Veteran aviation instructor discusses fatal Watsonville plane crash
Veteran aviation instructor discusses fatal Watsonville plane crash 04:43

WATSONVILLE -- A preliminary report on last month's fatal crash involving two small planes in Watsonville released Thursday indicates the pilots attempted various times to announce their positions and approaches to the airport before ultimately colliding in mid-air.

The report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) relied on recorded position data broadcast by the planes, recorded radio transmissions between the pilots, and information from witnesses to the crash, including one who was flying above the planes at the time of the collision.

NTSB investigators reported that one plane, a Cessna 152, was practicing "touch-and-go landings" at the Watsonville Municipal Airport when a larger and more powerful twin-engine Cessna 340 approached the airport. The airport does not have a control tower.

The report said the Cessna 340 pilot reported that he was 10 miles out and planned to descend for a straight-in approach to the runway from the northeast. About one minute later, the Cessna 152 pilot reported he was on the crosswind leg perpendicular to the extended takeoff line of the same runway; shortly after, he reported he was on the downwind leg of the runway after a 90-degree turn to the left and toward the direction of the approaching Cessna 340.

The Cessna 340 reported two more times of his straight-in approach to runway 20, saying he was three miles out and then one mile out, according to the report. He also stated that he was looking for the Cessna 152 on his left.

The final radio transmissions between the pilots follow:

Cessna 340: "Watsonville-area traffic twin Cessna. 740. One mile straight in. 2-0. Full stop. Looking for traffic on left base."

Cessna 152: "I see you're behind me ... Gonna go around then. Because you're coming at me pretty quick, man."

The NTSB report included the eyewitness account of a pilot flying overhead of the airport at 1,300 feet when he heard the two pilots speaking on the common radio channel. That pilot focused his attention on the final approach path of the Cessna 340 and observed it "on the Cessna 152's tail." 

The pilot overhead then saw the Cessna 340 bank to the right, its left wing striking the Cessna 152, and both planes plummeting to the ground. The report also included information from another witness who took a photo of the two planes just before they collided.

Photo from a witness shows two planes just before they collide on approach to Watsonville Municipal Airport, August 18, 2022.   NTSB

The collision separated the Cessna 152's left wing, left horizontal stabilizer and elevator from the aircraft, the report said. One witness said Cessna 152 immediately plummeted to the ground with most of the wreckage coming to rest about 1,200 feet northeast of the approach end of runway 20. The Cessna 340 continued to fly for a bit but eventually smashed into a hanger on the southeast side of the airport.

 A view of the two airplanes' flight tracking data and collision area. NTSB

Veteran flight instructor Orhan Baser told KPIX 5 he knows the Watsonville airport very well and that the crash likely could have been avoided.

"I heard one was coming in straight in there," said Baser. "We don't come in straight in there at a non-towered airport. We check out. We get into a traffic pattern, check the other traffic, and then go to the final."

Baser said it is critical at airports without a tower for pilots to frequently broadcast their position and planned approach to everyone on the frequency

"What leg you are. How far you are. What's your intention?" How are you going to come to the airport? Fly over, turn left or right," said Baser. "For every leg, we communicate and others hear that."

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff-Coroner's Office identified the victim from the Cessna 340 as Carl Kruppa, 75, and Nannette Plett-Kruppa, 67, of Winton, California. The Cessna 152 pilot was identified as Stuart Camenson, 32, of Santa Cruz.

No one on the ground was injured. The airport has four runways and is home to more than 300 aircraft, according to its website. It handles more than 55,000 operations a year and is used often for recreational planes and agriculture businesses.   

A final NTSB report on the crash was pending.

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