On December 19, 2004, about 0948 Pacific standard time, a Cessna 182P, N9187G, collided with a radio transmission tower at La Mirada, California, while in the traffic pattern to the Fullerton Municipal Airport, Fullerton, California. Lightning Aircraft Corporation was operating the rental airplane under the provisions 14 CFR 91. The private pilot and one passenger sustained fatal injuries; the airplane sustained substantial damage. The local personal flight departed from the El Monte Airport, El Monte, California, about 0915, with a planned destination of Fullerton, where the pilot would pickup two passengers. After loading the passengers, the flight was to continue onto Catalina where they intended to spend the day before returning to Fullerton, and then onto El Monte. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and a flight plan had not been filed. Use your browsers 'back' function to return to synopsisReturn to Query Page
During an interview with a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, a witness stated that while driving his automobile southbound on Interstate 5, he observed an airplane flying low, in a westerly direction. He noted that the airplane was configured in a wings-level attitude and that the propeller appeared to be turning. The airplane continued towards two parallel towers, both of which had numerous guy wires attached. He observed the inboard section of the airplane's left wing collide with the taller tower, impacting about 10 feet below the pinnacle. After the initial impact, a fire erupted and both wings and the tail floated toward the ground.
Another witness stated that he too was driving southbound on the Interstate 5 when he noticed an airplane making a gradual turn to the southeast and then continuing on a straight course. With the wings level the airplane continued, and the witness then saw that the radio tower in its close proximity. He began to tell his wife seated next to him that "if that plane does not make a radical turn he'll hit the…" The airplane impacted the tower about 15 feet from the pinnacle. The left wing sheared off and the right wing folded down and back, with the tail snapping forward. The airplane erupted in a fireball and the tower subsequently collapsed. The witness exited the interstate on the next off-ramp and turned onto the main road. The road was oriented in the same direction as the airplane was flying before impacting the tower. He noted a strong sun glare on his windshield, which was so bright his visibility was hindered.
A written statement was obtained from the Air Traffic Control Specialist that was in the control tower at the time of the accident. He stated that the accident pilot made contact with him, indicating that the airplane was northwest of the airport and that he had the current ATIS information. Confirming that the ATIS information was correct, the controller identified the airplane using a D-BRITE (Digital Bright Radar Indicator Tower Equipment) radar system. The controller cleared the airplane for a left base entry to runway 06. When the airplane was about 3 miles north of the airport he cleared the airplane to land. Shortly thereafter, he observed an explosion west of the airport and watched as the KFI tower collapsed.
A review of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) airman records revealed the pilot held a private pilot certificate with ratings for single engine land airplanes and rotorcraft helicopters. The rotorcraft helicopter rating was issued April 14, 2000, and the airplane single engine land add-on rating was issued June 01, 2004. The pilot held a third-class medical certificate that was issued on November 17, 2003, with limitations that the pilot must have glasses available for near vision.
According to the pilot's flight logbook he had 188 hours total time, with 103 hours accrued in rotorcraft, and 85 hours accrued in fixed wing airplane. All of the fixed wing flight hours was amassed in Cessna aircraft, which included the 150, 152, 172, and 182. The pilot accumulated a total of 4 hours in a Cessna 182 (completed in the accident airplane), of which two of those were accrued with an instructor on November 01, 2004, as part of a high-performance sign-off.
Based on the airport identifiers listed in the logbook for flight origin and destination points, the pilot accumulated a majority of his flying hours around El Monte. There were four recorded entries where the pilot logged flights to the Fullerton Municipal Airport while operating a Robinson R22 Beta helicopter, with the two most recent trips taking place in 2002. One of those trips took place on April 28, 2002, where the pilot logged the departure and arrival points as: El Monte (EMT) to Ontario International Airport, Ontario, California (ONT), on to Fullerton (FUL), and back to El Monte. The flight is described in the remarks section as "10E-ONT Midfield S to Corona, W to FUL, FUL-EMT." The last entry noting a flight into Fullerton is dated several days later on May 9, 2002. The flight is described in the remarks section as "605 S- 5 S - FUL- 605N-EMT."
In the back of the flight log under cross-country solo endorsements an entry was dated March 04, 2000. The entry was a certified flight instructor's (CFI) authorization for the pilot to make a solo flight from El Monte to Fullerton via Rialto Municipal Airport, Rialto, California. It further authorized the pilot to perform landings at both Rialto and Fullerton, and stated that the CFI had reviewed the preflight planning and preparation for that flight.
The airplane was a Cessna 182P, serial number 18263383. A review of the airplane's logbooks revealed a total airframe time of 2,873.2 hours at the annual inspection, which was completed on October 20, 2004. The airplane had a total time of 2,901.4 hours when departing on the accident flight.
The airplane had a Teledyne Continental Motors O-470-R engine, serial number 275500-R, installed. Total time on the engine at the last annual inspection was 2,829.6 hours, which was completed on October 05, 2004.
A routine aviation weather report (METAR) generated by an Automated Surface Observation System (ASOS) at Fullerton Municipal Airport indicated that about 2 minutes after to the accident, winds were from 360 degrees at 5 knots; visibility 10 statute miles; clear sky; temperature 23 degrees Celsius; dew point -01 degrees Celsius; and an altimeter setting of 30.18 inches of mercury.
A routine METAR report at the EL Monte Airport indicated that at 0909, winds were variable at 9 knots; visibility 20 statute miles; clear sky and an altimeter setting of 30.23 inches of mercury.
A sun and moon illumination computer program used by the Safety Board calculated that, at the time of the accident, the sun was 27.1 degrees above the horizon on a bearing of 137.7 degrees (magnetic) from the accident site.
Fullerton Municipal Airport
The Airport/ Facility Directory, Southwest U. S., indicates that 2 miles west-northwest of the Fullerton Municipal Airport (elevation 96 feet mean sea level (msl)), there is a lighted tower stretching 819 feet msl. Pictorially depicted as a obstruction below 1,000 feet above ground level (agl), the Los Angeles VFR Terminal Area Chart, dated December 23, 2004 (50th edition), discloses the transmission tower height extends 820 feet msl and 760 agl. The traffic pattern altitude is notated as 1,100 feet msl or 1,004 feet agl.
According to the City of Fullerton's website, Fullerton Municipal Airport traces its origins back as early as 1913, when barnstormers and crop dusters used the then vacant site as a landing strip. In January 1927, the City Council signed an ordinance leasing the land to the Chamber, who then subleased the property to an individual to be used as an airfield. The first hangar was constructed on the land and about 7 months following the ordinance, with the airport's location listed on series of aeronautical charts. During World War II the field was closed, as civilian flying was prohibited, but soon after the war ended, the field was returned to the City, along with a new 1,700-foot paved runway. By 1948, the airport, equipped with such modern features as airport lights, was home base to more than 200 airplanes, as compared to 96 at Orange County Airport; it was ranked the fourth largest airport in California. In 1959, the FAA gave the City monetary funds for airport improvements, which included the addition of a control tower to the existing administration building; the control tower was the first in the county.
Today, Fullerton Municipal Airport encompasses 86 acres, and has room to accommodate 600 planes. The FAA reports that a total of 385 aircraft are based on the airport, of which 341 are single engine and 34 are multiengine airplanes, and 10 of which are helicopters. The airport receives an average of 222 aircraft operations per day, of which 62 percent are transient general aviation and 38 percent are local general aviation.
KFI Tower Information
In January 1948, the KFI radio tower was constructed at 33 degrees 52 minutes 46.8 seconds north latitude by 118 degrees 00 minutes 49.66 seconds west longitude or, 16608 Trojan Way, La Mirada, California. The AM tower was erected 759.84 feet agl (823.49 msl), which includes the addition of the appurtenances. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Registration Number is 1011538. The structure was classified as a free standing or guyed structure used for communication purposes. On March 15, 2002, the owner of the tower was changed to Capstar Radio Operating Company, Tulsa, Oklahoma. The tower was not lit during the daytime, but was equipped with a red light on the top, which was illuminated at night.
The tower is oriented 1.77 nautical miles on a bearing of 285.11 degrees from the Fullerton Municipal Airport, which is referenced from the approach end of runway 06. The tower had not undergone Obstruction Evaluation/Airport Airspace Analysis (OE/AAA) studies. The FAA had no record of performing an obstruction evaluation study to issue a determination of "no hazard" with regards to the tower height and location.
According to a KFI representative, currently under the Emergency Alert System (CFR Title 47, Part 11, EAS), KFI is one of two LP-1 stations serving the Los Angeles local area. Every broadcaster and cable operator in Los Angeles is required to monitor KFI under the Operational Orders for Los Angles; in addition five other counties are required to monitor the station.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
After arriving at the accident site, Safety Board investigators found the airplane wreckage located near a white and orange painted debris field composed of 2-inch diameter steel structural elements, which was the remnants of the collapsed transmission tower. The global positioning satellite (GPS) coordinates for the main wreckage, consisting of the fuselage and tail section, was located about 33 degrees 52.766 minutes north latitude by 118 degrees 00.853 minutes west longitude.
The accident site was located in an industrial parking lot about 1.6 nautical miles (nm) from the geographical center of Fullerton Municipal Airport on a bearing of 280 degrees true. The wreckage was spread amongst asphalt and several unoccupied industrial trucks covering a 534 feet range, with a debris path of 154 degrees true.
Examination of the tower assembly disclosed that the entire structure fell in the immediate vicinity of the installation. The support cable network was fractured and were scattered between the ground anchor and the tower installation. Further examination of the steel tower structure showed several fresh marks around the 745-foot level of the structure.
The main wreckage, consisting of the fuselage and tail section, came to rest about 130 feet southwest of the base of the tower. The fuselage was fractured into several pieces and had been consumed by fire. The instrument panel was separated from the overhead cabin leaving the cockpit area open. The firewall was still attached to the airframe, but bent forward at the base, resting under the fuselage. The tail section was separated from the fuselage aft of the baggage compartment. An examination underneath the nose cowling revealed paint markings on the lower right side that were consistent with the color of the tower.
The majority of the left wing was consumed by fire. The right wing had separated from the fuselage at the wing root and had come to rest upside down. The inboard section of the airplane's right wing remained in close proximity of the tower's base, entangled in the steel structure, about 10 to 15 feet below the apex, which was identified by a broken red light lens.
The airplane's altimeter was located within the debris field. It was set to 30.23 inches of mercury, which was consistent to the reported weather at El Monte. Imbedded in the wreckage were burnt pieces of papers of which one contained writing stating the Fullerton control tower and ATIS frequencies, the different runways (24 and 06), and the traffic pattern altitude of 1,100 feet.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL
The Los Angeles County Coroner completed an autopsy of the pilot. The FAA Toxicology and Accident Research Laboratory performed toxicological testing of specimens of the pilot. Results of analysis of the specimens were negative for volatiles and tested drugs.
TEST AND RESEARCH
Following recovery, Safety Board investigators examined the airplane at Aircraft Recovery Service, Littlerock, California, on December 20, 2004. As well as FAA inspectors, a manufacturer's representative from Cessna Aircraft and Teledyne Continental Motors assisted with the examination.
The structural examination of the airframe revealed that the fuselage was disintegrated from the floor level to the roof. The fuselage and empennage had burned predominately to ashes. All flight control surfaces were found in the main wreckage. The cockpit and corresponding instrumentation were thermally destroyed and not recognizable.
Investigators established control continuity from the tail flight controls throughout the length of the cabin. The condition of the wings prohibited investigators for determining control continuity. The wing flaps were in the retracted position.
An visual examination the engine revealed external impact damage with the engine case fractured. Due to the extent of the mechanical and thermal damage, investigators were unable to rotate the engine. The removal of the top spark plugs revealed that they were all gray in color with slightly oval electrodes. According to the Champion Aviation Check-A-Plug AV-27 Chart, these spark plug signatures correspond to normal operation. The engine came to rest on its aft section, resulting in extensive damage to the accessory section.
The engine manufacturer noted no anomalies or evidence of mechanical malfunction that could have precluded normal operation.
The outboard 11 inches of both propeller blades was separated. Dents were observed in the leading edges of both blades that spanned about 2 inches in diameter, consistent with impacting the tower structure.
The Safety Board investigated a previous accident that occurred on January 28, 1970, where a Piper PA-28 was attempting to land at the Fullerton Municipal Airport and collided with the KFI transmission tower (LAX70AL045). While on an extended downwind leg of the traffic pattern, the airplane impacted the KFI transmission tower and fatally injured the pilot, the sole occupant. The accident occurred at 1642 in day visual meteorological conditions. The Safety Board determined the probable cause to be the pilot's failure to see and avoid objects and obstructions. Factors in the accident were the congested traffic pattern and the pilot experiencing sun glare.
Airport Advisory Committee
On March 22, 2001, the Fullerton Airport Manager reported to the Airport Advisory Committee that he had called the KFI tower engineer suggesting that strobe lights be installed on the tower. The engineer responded that the monetary funds for purchasing the lights had been taken out of their budget, and instead off installing the lights they would repaint the tower and replace the guy wires. The airport manager suggested that the committee approve a resolution with the intention of sending it to managers at KFI, emphasizing the reduction in liability to KFI if they were to add strobe lights.
On January 24, 2002, the airport manager reported that he had spoken to the KFI engineer who had opted not to install the strobe lights regardless of the suggestion made in the months prior. The engineer stated that they were already meeting safety standards and that the maintenance costs were prohibitive. See the public docket for all communications the Safety Board received between the airport manager and the committee.
Strob lights are not required by FAA regulations for obstacles less than 1,000 feet agl in day conditions.
The only particular requirements as to the structural design of FM towers are twofold: the height of the mass must be tall enough to ensure it can convey a signal adequately, and it must have the structural integrity to bear the load of environmental factors, such as high wind conditions. Conversely, in AM towers, the physical tower structure is the antenna, and the most involved component. The tower is specifically designed and engineered to be utilized for its respective designated frequency. The radio frequency of KFI, 640 kHz, was actually a component of the height of tower, dictating the specified parameter of how tall the tower must be erected.
Antenna heights generally are licensed in the range of 1/4 to 5/8 wavelength tall, which at AM broadcast frequencies, results in structures with excessive heights. The height necessary for a particular station is dependent upon the broadcast frequency utilized and the minimum radiated field requirements for the station's class of operation (designated by the FCC). According to the KFI engineer, with the KFI station being a class "A" radio station and operating at 640 kHz, their minimum radiated field required necessitates a structure over 700 feet agl in height. Additionally, any AM radiator must have an electrical height great enough to meet the minimum radiated field requirements, as set forth by its class of service.
AM transmissions function via a ground wave propagation medium. There are many enhancements done on the ground, in the general proximity of the antenna that will improve its performance. These ground system enhancements encompass part of the minimum radiated field requirements dictated by the FCC.
When erecting the KFI tower at the specific site an extensive FCC licensing process was done, tests at that site specific location were performed, and an investment in custom equipment was made, which was utilized as a system at that particular location. The particular location where an AM antenna can be built is primarily determined by the standards of allocation set forth by the FCC. Historically, building AM antennas at new locations has been impractical (if not impossible) due to the systems not working well on elevated terrain (e.g. hilltops). AM stations are primarily built in basins, or low-lying areas because the ground conductivity is generally better and reasonably flat terrain is required to accommodate the ground radial system used to support ground wave propagation.
The Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 77, Subpart C states in 77.23, Standards for Determining Obstructions, that an object is an obstruction to air navigation if it is of greater height than (a) 500 feet agl at the site of the object.
The KFI tower was oriented about 440 feet outside of the conical airspace of the Fullerton Municipal Airport. According to FAA Order 7400.2E, the tower was within Pattern "B" airspace of the airport and clear of the approach and horizontal boundaries.
Air Traffic Control Tower Regulations
According to the FAA, the D-BRITE system uses data sources from the terminal facility and provides tower air traffic controllers with a comprehensive display of aircraft in their assigned airspace. The system provides tower controllers with a visual display of the airport surveillance radar/beacon signals and data received from the Automated Radar Terminal System (ARTS). D-BRITE is a high intensity display that can be seen by the tower controller even in a bright daylight environment. It provides the tower controller an air traffic control tool that displays aircraft position, identification, radar beacon, and weather information.
The Fullerton Air Traffic control tower was equipped with a certified D-BRITE radar system. An echo of the KFI tower was illuminated on the screen that the controller monitors.
In accordance with the Air Traffic Control handbook FAA Order 7110.65:
2-1-2. DUTY PRIORITY: Give first priority to separating aircraft and issuing safety alerts as required in this order. Good judgment shall be used in prioritizing all other provisions of this order based of the requirements of the situation at hand.
2-1-6. SAFETY ALERT: Issue a safety alert to an aircraft if you are aware the aircraft is in a position/altitude, which, in your judgment, places it in unsafe proximity to terrain, obstructions, or other aircraft. Once the pilot informs you action is being taken to resolve the situation, you may discontinue the issuance of further alerts. Do not assume that because someone else has responsibility for the aircraft that the unsafe situation has been observed and the safety alert issued; inform the appropriate controller.
NOTE- 1. The issuance of a safety alert is a first priority (see para 2-1-2, Duty Priority) once the controller observes and recognizes a situation of unsafe aircraft proximity to terrain, obstacles, or other aircraft. Conditions, such as workload, traffic volume, the quality/limitations of the radar system, and the available lead time to react are factors in determining whether it is reasonable for the controller to observe and recognize such situations. While a controller cannot see immediately the development of every situation where a safety alert must be issued, the controller must remain vigilant for such situations and issue a safety alert when the situation is recognized.
3-1-9. USE OF TOWER RADAR DISPLAYS:
Local controllers may use certified tower radar displays for the following purposes:
1. To determine an aircraft's identification, exact location, or spatial relationship to other aircraft.
2. To provide aircraft with radar traffic advisories.
3. To provide a direction or suggested headings to VFR aircraft as a method for radar identification or as an advisory aid to navigation.
4. To provide information and instructions to aircraft operating within the surface area for which the tower has responsibility.
NOTE- Unless otherwise authorized, tower radar displays are intended to be an aid to local controllers in meeting their responsibilities to the aircraft operating on the runways or within the surface area. They are not intended to provide radar benefits to pilots except for those accrued through a more efficient and effective local control position.
A research survey was utilized to obtain information regarding the KFI transmission tower in its relationship to Fullerton Municipal Airport operations. The survey was designed for FAA certificated pilots that had previously operated aircraft within the Fullerton airspace. The survey instrument consisted of an electronic questionnaire that was formatted and delivered via a Microsoft Word document. The objective in sending out the survey was to collect data in the form of perceptions/opinions of people who have had experience within the Fullerton airspace and specifically with the KFI transmission tower.
The Safety Board investigator utilized an e-mail list maintained by the owner of a flight school that is located on the Fullerton Municipal Airport. An estimated total of 600 pilots were determined applicable candidates and were queried via their self-provided e-mail address in the form of an attachment that included brief instructions and a statement of purpose. The investigator allotted a time period of 27 days for the recipients to respond to the survey, with the first (and only) request sent on January 15, 2005; the stated completion deadline was February 11, 2005. At the end of the predetermined 27-day duration, the investigator received 122 completed surveys.
Upon receiving the completed surveys, the investigator compiled the data systematically into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet for ease of reviewing the results. Tables and graphs were used for data analysis and identification of patterns and trends from responses. The participants' responses are coded as follows: yes, no, n/a (not applicable), y/n (yes, no).
The first inquiry on the survey asked how long the recipient has been piloting an aircraft in the vicinity (within 10 nm) of Fullerton Airport (Please specify in terms of hours, flights, years )? Of the 122 pilots that returned the survey, 92 respondents answered the total number of hours flown in the vicinity, of which those answers averaged to 1,552 hours. In addition, 119 responses to total years flying in the vicinity averaged to 16 years.
The second query stated that, prior to the recent accident, did they think that the KFI tower was a safety hazard to aircraft operations at Fullerton Airport? In the 122 responses, 88 pilots answered "yes," 29 answered "no," 4 pilots said both "yes" and "no," and 1 response was categorized as "not applicable."
The third question inquired if the recipient, when landing or departing from the Fullerton Municipal Airport, has ever piloted an aircraft that became close to impacting KFI tower? Of the 122 responses 112 pilots answered "no," and the remaining 10 answered "yes."
The FAA's Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge FAA-H-8083-25, Chapter 6, Flight Instruments, states that "a decrease in pressure causes the altimeter to indicate an increase in altitude, and an increase in pressure causes the altimeter to indicate a decrease in altitude. Accordingly, if the airplane is flown from a pressure level of 28.75 inHg to a pressure level of 29.75 inHg, the altimeter would show a decrease of approximately 1,000 feet in altitude."