Pilot was warned prior to air crash | TheUnion.com

Pilot was warned prior to air crash

The pilot and passenger of an airplane that crashed near the Nevada County Airport on Jan. 19 were advised of poor weather in Grass Valley and the Bay Area before leaving the area, according to a National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report.

Regina Martha Fredericks, 56, was killed along with pilot Edward Ross Castro, 51, when the Cessna 172K airplane crashed at 6:30 p.m. off Greenhorn Road, near the airport. The San Jose couple had been staying in a cabin or vacation home in Grass Valley.

Castro and Fredericks originally flew into Nevada County Jan. 16 from Palo Alto.

While en route back to Palo Alto, Castro was being aided by Bay Terminal Radar Approach Control. While the airplane was nearing its destination, Bay Area air traffic controllers observed the airplane’s transponder code change to 7600 – used by flight crews to indicate a communications failure, according to the report. Controllers determined the pilot could hear them, but they could not hear him.

According to the report, controllers diverted the Cessna to Stockton, hoping he would be able to communicate with air traffic controllers there. It is against Palo Alto Airport rules to let an airplane land or take off without clear two-way communication.

The pilot contacted Stockton while 12 miles west of the airport, but controllers could barely hear his transmissions, the report stated. Castro told the controllers to cancel his flight plan at 5:31 p.m. He said he would fly back to Grass Valley using visual flight rules without “flight following” – through which a pilot is contacted every 15 minutes to make sure everything is OK. This was his last communication.

Upon returning to Grass Valley, Castro made an “instrument approach,” meaning he was not able to see the runway but tried to land with the aid of gauges.

According to witnesses and authorities, the visibility at the airport was very poor.

After he missed that approach, Castro tried again. He broke off the second approach, too, and followed the airport’s procedure for aborting landings: To avoid Banner Mountain to the left, planes are supposed to bank to the right.

However, the Cessna likely was lower than the pilot thought, and it crashed into trees before hitting the ground, authorities said.

The safety board is expected to issue a final report on the crash in five months at the soonest, according to an official.

Nevada County Airport Interim Manager Rob Kopp said while no new precautions have been taken by airport staff because of the crash, the airport will soon be equipped with an Automated Weather Observation System, which will make accidents caused by poor weather less likely to occur.

The $120,000 technology should be in place by fall, Kopp said.

“It is 24-hour weather updates right here at the airport,” he said. “It’s just like a weather man sitting right here.”

The system provides information on ceiling height, wind speed, barometric pressure and visibility and dew point measures.

“It’s a very good system, and a lot of airports are starting to get it,” Kopp said, adding that it might have prevented the January crash.

“(Castro) could have checked it on his radio and found what the weather was like here in advance – that might have changed his mind.”

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