Pilot died on impact
A Fallon man whose plane crashed minutes after he took off from Lake Tahoe Airport Sunday died immediately when his light aircraft struck a hillside well below a little-used pass, investigators said Thursday.
Thomas C. O’Connor, 47, crashed just five minutes after taking off at the airport at 3:23 p.m., said Wayne Pollack, an air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
O’Connor was a senior enlisted man at the Fallon Naval Air Station. While he did not live at Lake Tahoe, O’Connor was a member of Heavenly Ski Resort’s ski patrol.
Pollack said O’Connor, a student pilot, was attempting to fly over Armstrong Pass south of Freel Peak after practicing landing approaches at the Lake Tahoe Airport. The seldom-used corridor is on a direct route to Hawthorne, Nev., which O’Connor identified as his next destination in the flight plan he filed.
But O’Connor’s Cessna 150 was unable to climb at a steep enough rate to clear the 8,500-foot pass, instead plowing into sloping terrain at 7,840 feet, Pollack said. Initial autopsy results suggest he died on impact, he added.
“From our perspective, this was not a survivable accident,” Pollack said.
The aircraft broke apart after colliding with a stand of trees, which sheared its wings off, he added.
Because of the violence of the crash and its location in the Trout Creek canyon, records showed that a signal from the plane’s electronic location transmitter, which automatically activates upon impact, was received for less than a second at the Lake Tahoe Airport, Pollack said.
“If the signal had been loud and clear, it would have been evident to the tower personnel,” he said.
Tower supervisor Charles Horner said it is not uncommon for air controllers to hear an abbreviated signal when a plane’s transmitter is accidentally triggered, or when a pilot tests the transmitter.
Instead of being picked up locally, the emergency transmission was detected by one of six orbiting satellites that are monitored by the U.S. Air Force’s Rescue Coordination Center in Langley, Va. After several satellites narrowed the location of the signal, the center contacted the Alpine County Sheriff’s Office about 11:30 p.m.
After determining that the emergency beacon was located within the Tahoe Basin, Alpine County authorities notified their counterparts in El Dorado County at 2 a.m. Monday. The downed plane was spotted by a Fallon NAS search and rescue helicopter at 10:30 a.m.
Pollack said an examination of the Cessna 150 O’Connor piloted indicated that the plane had performed within specifications, and the presence of remaining fuel suggested it did not run out of gas. He added that the maximum rate of climb listed for the single-engine plane was consistent with the altitude gain O’Connor made before crashing.
While the plane appeared to be functioning adequately, Pollack said it is always the pilot’s responsibility for choosing the appropriate route.
Horner said almost all pilots heading east out of the Tahoe Basin cross the Carson Range over Spooner Summit or Kingsbury Grade, which are more than 1,000 feet lower than Armstrong Pass.
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