Fatal crash occurred Sunday
A Fallon man who died when his single-engine aircraft crashed six miles southeast of Lake Tahoe Airport took off from the airport nearly 12 hours before local authorities learned early Monday that his emergency beacon had been activated.
Thomas C. O’Connor, 47, was practicing landing patterns at the Lake Tahoe Airport and took off at 2:23 p.m. Sunday, said Charles Horner, who manages the airport’s control tower. But Horner added that it is impossible to say whether O’Connor then flew directly to Armstrong Pass near Freel Peak, where his Cessna 150 crashed at the 7,200-foot level.
“He could have flown around Lake Tahoe four times before heading home,” Horner said. “Nobody will ever know for sure how long afterward he crashed.”
Orbiting satellites picked up a signal from the plane’s electronic location transmitter, and authorities initially notified Alpine County of a possible downed craft before midnight. After Alpine County Sheriff’s deputies failed to detect the beacon in their county but detected a signal in the Tahoe Basin, they notified their counterparts in El Dorado County around 2 a.m.
With the assistance of two helicopters from Fallon Naval Air Station, El Dorado County’s search and rescue team located the wreckage at 10:30 a.m. and recovered his body about noon.
A senior enlisted man at the Fallon Naval Air Station, O’Connor was training for a civilian pilot’s license. He filed a flight plan that indicated he would fly from Fallon to Lake Tahoe, then to Hawthorne, Nev. before returning to Fallon, according to Jim Haralson, an air traffic manager at the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight service station in Reno.
But O’Connor did not activate the flight plan by notifying authorities when he departed from Fallon, Haralson said. Without the activation, the FAA would not know the estimated time of O’Connor’s return, and therefore whether he was overdue, Haralson added.
Mindy Johnke of Oasis Aviation at the Lake Tahoe Airport said O’Connor may have been practicing at the airport to fulfill the requirements of his pilot’s license. Student pilots are required to conduct 10 hours of cross-country flights, and practice three solo landings and takeoffs at an airport with an operating control tower.
Lake Tahoe Airport is one of the few small airports in the vicinity where O’Connor could have fulfilled the training exercise, Johnke said.
But experienced pilots in the Tahoe Basin usually avoid the pass where O’Connor crashed when departing to the east, unless they are flying a high-performance aircraft, she added.
“The usual flight path out of the basin is over Kingsbury Grade or Spooner Summit,” Johnke said. “That’s where pilots fly 99 percent of the time.”
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