‘This was not an inexperienced pilot’: Aviation expert weighs in on Santee crash

Local

SAN DIEGO — The Arizona cardiologist who crashed his small plane into a Santee neighborhood Monday was a commercially rated pilot who knew how to fly a multi-engine plane, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

An expert with San Diego International Flight Training told FOX 5 it was clear that Dr. Sugata Das was a very experienced and highly skilled pilot, and that something went horribly wrong that day. 

Philip Thalheimer says they train their students in flight simulator for every type of emergency in the air. They also train students to respond to challenging conditions and weather.

“That’s the beauty of the simulator,” Thalheimer said. “We provide and do emergency procedures here like failed engines, failed instruments, put you in clouds.”

Das crashed his twin-engine Cessna C340 on a partially cloudy afternoon in Santee. In an audio recoding, air traffic control can be heard warning Das that he is descending

Thalheimer says pilots can become disoriented and think they are climbing when they are descending. 

“Generally, that happens in clouds. It’s called vertigo,” Thalheimer said.

“It’s very rare and very unusual, that’s why I’m thinking something either happened to him medically or something distracted him severely in the cockpit, and we don’t know that,” Thalheimer said. “Maybe there was some kind of mechanical failure that was drawing his attention but generally when the air traffic controller says, ‘climb,’ people respond pretty quick.”

Thalheimer said he does not believe training played a major factor in the crash.

“If something medically went wrong, all bets are off,” Thalheimer said. “If the airplane had some kind of severe mechanical failure, something happened, that basically broke that pilot’s ability to maintain the aircraft and it’s a tragedy. It’s an absolute tragedy and it’s extremely rare.”

It takes at least 250 flight hours to become a commercially rated pilot.

“This was not an inexperienced pilot,” Thalheimer said.

The National Transportation Safety Board was still investigating the cause of the crash.

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