LOS ANGELES (AP) — The pilot of a small twin-engine plane that dropped out of the sky and exploded in flames on a busy freeway near a Southern California airport Friday morning, injuring the two people aboard, declared a mayday and told air traffic controllers he had lost an engine before the crash.
The Cessna 310 aircraft crashed on Interstate 405, just short of a runway at John Wayne Airport in Costa Mesa around 9:30 a.m., said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. The pilot declared an emergency shortly after taking off from the airport and was trying to return when the crash occurred, Gregor said.
“Hey, we got a mayday!” the pilot told air traffic controllers before the crash. “Mayday, mayday … I’m trying to make it back to the airport.”
The exchange was captured on a recording of air traffic controller communications, posted on the website LiveATC.net.
After an air traffic controller tells the pilot a gear of the plane appears to be up, the pilot says he’s trying to gain altitude. “I lost my right engine,” he said.
The two people who were aboard the plane, a man and a woman in their 50s and 60, were alive when they were pulled from the fiery wreckage and were taken to a hospital with traumatic injuries, Orange County Fire Capt. Larry Kurtz said.
The plane clipped a blue pickup truck as it crashed on the freeway, but the driver suffered only a bruised elbow, Kurtz said. “The fact that a plane was able to land and only strike a single vehicle is extraordinary,” he said.
Video posted on social media showed the plane engulfed in flames and plumes of black smoke billowing into the sky. Traffic was backed up for miles on the major route between Los Angeles and San Diego as fire crews worked to extinguish the blaze.
“The plane collided, spun across the freeway and burst into flames,” Kurtz said. The wreckage saw strewn across several lanes of the freeway, he said.
An off-duty fire captain, John Meffert, said he saw the plane flying low before it came crashing down on the freeway and was immediately engulfed in flames. Meffert, who has been a firefighter in Avalon for 17 years, said part of the wing hit his car, but he was able to pull over and went running toward the blaze.
Through the flames and smoke, he saw a woman’s head pop up inside the plane and made his way into the aircraft from the tail. Fire officials said Meffert pulled the woman and the male pilot from the burning wreckage.
“It was one of those things where you think, ‘It can’t be happening,’ ” Meffert told reporters. “I called my wife and I said, ‘I’m going to be a little bit late. I got hit by a plane.’ ”
The pickup truck’s driver, Blackstone Hamilton, told KCBS-TV he initially thought a large truck had slammed into the back of his car and then saw flames quickly surrounding his vehicle. He checked to make sure his passenger was safe before pulling over on the side of the freeway.
“We gave each other a hug that we were still alive,” Hamilton told the television station.
Tina Foster had just left nearby John Wayne Airport when she heard a loud boom, which she initially thought was a car crash. “By the time I got up to it, the only thing I saw was the flames,” she said.
Foster posted a photo of smoke pouring out from behind the airport on Facebook to calm her friends’ fears after receiving texts asking if she were still alive, she said.
Another driver, Brian Gladish, said he was driving down the freeway when he saw a large cloud of smoke and flames. “There was debris everywhere, the freeway was still on fire,” he said.
Associated Press writers John Antczak in Los Angeles and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.