Pilot in deadly California crash repeatedly warned to climb

Julie Watson Associated Press
Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The air traffic controller repeated the warnings to the pilot more than a half-dozen times. Stop drifting, keep on course and a chilling, urgent plea: “Low altitude alert, climb immediately, climb the airplane.”

Instead, the twin-engine plane plowed into a San Diego suburb, killing the pilot and a delivery driver on the ground and burning homes. Now, federal investigators must try to figure out what caused the crash that left a shocked and damaged neighborhood.

The Cessna 340 nose-dived and clipped a UPS van in Santee after noon Monday as it was preparing to land at Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in San Diego.

An elderly couple suffered burns when their home went up in flames. Neighbors helped the woman out of a window. Nearly a dozen other homes in the eastern San Diego suburb were damaged.

The plane was owned and piloted by Dr. Sugata Das, a cardiologist who worked in Yuma, Arizona, and commuted to his home in San Diego, according to the website for a non-profit charity group he directed called the Power of Love Foundation.

On a recording made by LiveATC, a website that monitors and posts flight communications, an air traffic controller repeatedly warns Das that he needs to climb in altitude. He also cautioned that a C-130, a large military transport plane, was overhead and could cause turbulence.

Das responded he was aware.

The controller later is heard saying, “It looks like you’re drifting right of course, are you correcting?”

“Correcting,” Das responds.

Das asks if he has been cleared for the runway. The controller says “I need you to fly,” warning him that he is coming in too low.

Das tells him he is climbing. The controller urges him to climb again, and Das says he is ascending.

“Ok. It looks like you’re descending sir. I need to make sure you are climbing, not descending,” the controller says.

Then the controller speaks with more urgency.

“Low altitude alert, climb immediately, climb the airplane,” he says. “Climb the airplane please.”

The controller repeatedly urged the plane to climb to 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), and when it remained at 1,500 feet (457 meters), the controller warned: “You appear to be descending again, sir.”

There is no response. An investigator from the NTSB arrived at the crash scene Tuesday morning and will review radar data, weather information, air traffic control communication, airplane maintenance records and the pilot’s medical records, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Gabris said.

Al Diehl, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said the recording indicates the pilot was trying to deal with a major distraction or significant emergency on his own — breaking a basic rule that aviators should always tell controllers everything.

“The first thing you do when you’re in trouble is call, climb and confess — and he did not do any of the three,” Diehl said. “These are very basic rules that flight instructors tell their students.”

Diehl, who helped design a Cessna cockpit, said the aircraft has a complex system that could lead to deadly mistakes.

Clouds and windy weather may have complicated Das’ ability to handle the aircraft, Diehl said. Investigators also will look at whether there could have been a medical emergency, something an autopsy should help reveal.

Diehl noted the plane at the last minute made a sweeping turn to the right as if trying to switch back to another airport that was closer because something was wrong. Das didn’t mention that to air traffic control.

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