SANTEE, Calif. – The pilot who crashed a twin-engine Cessna into a Santee neighborhood didn’t respond to multiple queries to climb in altitude as his aircraft drifted away from the path of its intended destination, a preliminary report released Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board shows.
The aircraft’s pilot Dr. Sugata Das and a UPS driver on the ground, Steve Krueger, were killed when the plane crashed about 12:15 p.m. Oct. 11 near Jeremy and Greencastle streets. No others were in the plane at the time. Neighbors Maria and Phil Morris sustained major injuries after their home went up in flames in the aftermath of the crash and were helped to safety by other nearby residents.
All major structural components of the aircraft were located by federal investigators in the debris path that was measured at nearly 475 feet long and 400 feet wide, the report shows.
Monday’s preliminary report confirms more details of the aircraft’s final moments, including shedding some new light on information learned from audio released after the crash where an air traffic controller told Das a half-dozen times he needed to gain altitude.
Das, a cardiologist who worked at Yuma Regional Medical Center in southwestern Arizona, was traveling from Yuma, Arizona to Montgomery Gibbs Executive Airport in Kearny Mesa.
The day of the crash, an air traffic controller broadcasted a weather update just after noon reporting visibility at 10 miles with a broken ceiling at 1,700 feet and overcast skies at 2,800 feet, the report shows. At about 12:10 p.m., Das was instructed to descend to 2,800 feet and cleared him to approach with the intention of landing at runway No. 23.
The report shows that Das and the air traffic controller were speaking back and forth in the minutes prior to the crash. Starting at 12:11 p.m, the controller stated that the aircraft was drifting “right of course and asked him if he was correcting.”
“The pilot responded and stated “correcting, 22G,” the report reads. “About 9 seconds later, the pilot said (unintelligible), VFR 23, to which the controller told the pilot he was not tracking the localizer and canceled the approach clearance.”
About a minute later, Das was told by the controller to climb and maintain an altitude of 3,800 feet, which he acknowledged, according to the report. He also acknowledged instructions to turn the aircraft right 90 degrees and climb “immediately” to maintain 4,000 feet.
Roughly two minutes before the crash, the controller again asked about the altitude to which Das responded that it was 2,500 feet.
“The controller subsequently issued a low altitude alert and advised the pilot to expedite the climb to 5,000 feet,” the report shows.
That was the last reported communication between pilot and controller as subsequent queries by the controller went unanswered. Not long after, home surveillance video shows the plane nosediving out of the sky before disappearing behind a visible home in the frame, followed shortly thereafter with a cloud of smoke seen exploding upward into the sky.
What resulted was a chaotic scene resident Jim Slaff described as “something you would see in a war zone.”
At least two homes were completely destroyed in the wake of the crash, including a single-story house owned by newlyweds Cody and Courtney Campbell. They were both at work at the time of the crash and later sifted through the remains of their property to find Cody’s wedding ring and a letter he wrote to Courtney on their wedding day.
Slaff’s parents, Maria and Phil, remained in the hospital as of last week with both requiring surgeries to treat significant burns. In a Saturday update on the couple’s GoFundMe campaign, Slaff wrote that Maria is “doing well and improving each day.” Phil recently handled a second surgery “well,” but remains on a ventilator.
“He will most likely have additional surgeries next week,” Slaff wrote on the campaign page.
The remains of the family’s dog Roxy were found in the rubble as well as a charred, sheet-metal cancer survivor belt that belongs to Maria.
A fundraiser event scheduled for Tuesday by a Santee Wendy’s restaurant will raise money to benefit Phil and Maria Morris and Cody and Courtney Campbell. The event at 9655 Mission Gorge Road runs from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Das, who was 64, was remembered by colleagues in Yuma as “an exceptional physician, colleague and friend.” He joined the hospital’s staff in 2005, credited for being a member of staff upholding “leading-edge” heart attack intervention.
“Dr. Das was an outstanding cardiologist and dedicated family man,” Dr. Bharat Magu, chief medical officer at YRMC, said in a statement. “He was a highly disciplined physician who thrived on each opportunity to improve care for heart patients.”
Krueger, 61, worked for UPS for more than 30 years. Neighbors recalled how he was a familiar and friendly face while working his regular delivery route. Those who knew him best described him as adventurous, charismatic and dedicated to his job.
Speaking at a vigil after the crash, Krueger’s brother Jeff Krueger said the “overwhelming response from all of you that made this much easier to deal with.”
“I mean, Steve would not want anybody to be upset or sad about his passing,” Jeff said. “He and I talked about that a few times.”
The NTSB preliminary report is posted below in its entirety.