SMO — A device that measures airspeed malfunctioned before an August airplane crash in the Sunset Park neighborhood that left the pilot and two bystanders injured, according to a preliminary report by federal investigators.
According to the report released last week by the National Transportation Safety Board, the still-unidentified pilot took off from Santa Monica Airport at 2:23 p.m. on Aug. 29 after completing a battery of preflight checks.
The pilot planned to complete a flight from Santa Monica to Santa Barbara in a Cessna 172 he rented from Justice Aviation Flight School. He filed no flight plan.
Seconds after liftoff, the pilot noticed that the airspeed indicator, a device that measures the speed of air outside of a plane relative to the static air pressure in the plane, wasn’t working.
The needle indicating speed rose and then dropped to zero and stayed there, according to the report.
The pilot reported the problem to SMO’s air traffic control tower, and requested permission to land, which was granted approximately a minute later.
He climbed into the air traffic pattern, but kept the plane close to the runway.
As the plane approached the last quarter of the runway, it was still 30 to 40 feet above the runway surface, and the controllers asked the pilot to go around and try again.
The student acknowledged the air traffic instruction and went to land on runway 21, from which he had just departed.
Trouble happened when the student pilot tried to dodge power lines and crashed into a tree 900 feet west of the departure end of the runway he was shooting for.
The plane collided with a house approximately 85 feet away from the tree where several painters were working, leaving two of them with minor injuries. The pilot suffered a broken leg.
Although the preliminary report, which is subject to change, does not point to an exact cause of the crash, the faulty airspeed indicator could have had a major impact on any pilot’s ability to fly, said Airport Manager Bob Trimborn.
“The airspeed indicator is arguably one of the most important instruments in an aircraft,” Trimborn said. “When the pilot takes off, they have to achieve the appropriate speed for the aircraft to leave the ground. Airspeed is one of the most important things you have to deal with.”
If a plane gets below a certain minimum speed, the plane can stall, Trimborn said.
Although the device does get a cursory glance during the preflight check, it’s impossible to know if it’s working until the plane is already in motion, said Jason Price, president and CEO of Mach 1 Aviation at Van Nuys Airport.
“The operation of the airspeed indicator itself cannot be checked by the pilot until the take off roll,” Price said.
The actual cause of the accident won’t come out for several months until NTSB investigators have had a chance to examine the plane wreckage, Trimborn said.
“That’s what makes accident investigation work so difficult, and difficult for the public at large, because these days, the public wants instant answers,” Trimborn said.