Cessna 172 Struck by Train

14 Jan 22 25 Comments

This video of a pilot who has used at least two of his nine lives was released by the Los Angeles Police Department on Monday. Note that if you are reading this on the email list, you may need to click through to the post to watch the videos.

Since 2018, the Los Angeles Police Department has been releasing the police officers’ body-worn camera videos to the public for critical incidents. This body camera policy has since become the model for the state of California, allowing for greater transparency and community trust in the police department.

The police department did not release any additional information with this but it wasn’t hard to track down the details.

The aircraft was a Cessna 172H registration N8056L built in 1967. The fixed wing single engine with four seats was privately “co-owned” with three names in the FAA listing.

The primary owner, Mark Jenkins, is a 70-year-old pilot who served in the US Air Force as a fighter pilot and is an experienced General Aviation pilot. He departed from Whiteman Airport, a general aviation airport in Pacoima in Los Angeles.

Whiteman Airport started as a farm strip in 1946 and currently offers a single 4,000 foot (1,200 metre) asphalt runway. Wikipedia lists it as the home airport for Senior Squadron 35, Cadet Squadron 137, and Los Angeles County Group 1 of the Civil Air Patrol, as well as EAA Chapter 40 and a branch of the Young Eagles. The airport supports 246 jobs and serves Studio City, Universal Studios, the Hollywood Bowl and Six Flags Magic Mountain. I mention all this as there are now calls to shut down the airport over safety concerns despite the fact that the city enveloped it without any concern for ensuring green spaces or keeping the area safe.

The end of the runway and the rail intersection taken from an aerial view of Whiteman Airport photographed by Platinummedia

At any rate, the pilot took off on runway 12 and then almost immediately afterwards lost power. He made a Mayday call, almost immediately followed by the words “railway tracks”.

The railway line runs parallel to the runway and the pilot came down directly past the airfield, landing on the tracks at the intersection of San Fernando Road and Osborne Street. The pilot’s son told NBC News that something, probably a railroad tie (railway sleeper), ripped off the nose wheel on touchdown, causing the plane to crash forward while still at speed.

VASaviation made a video with the ATC calls which gives a bit more context:

ATC responded immediately by calling 911 (US emergency services) and reporting the crash site.

The Foothills police station is very close to the area and one of the police officers on the scene said he saw plane come down. The police were on the scene within five minutes, where they found the Cessna 172 crashed on the railway line with the pilot trapped within the cockpit, bleeding but awake.

They called for a halt to all passing rail traffic and blocked off the road to the intersection, while another officer spoke to the pilot to help keep him conscious.

Screenshot from the body cam with the pilot conscious but trapped in the wreckage

Once the scene had been secured, they looked to free the pilot from the cockpit. Then came the sound of an oncoming train.

One of the officers told local media that it happened so fast, they didn’t have time to think. “All I could think was try to get this man to safety. I didn’t really want to look back to see how fast the train was coming; you could hear it coming.”

They frantically began to pull the pilot from the wreckage as the train bore down on them. The pilot was unable to walk and they dragged him away from the tracks.

Bodycam view as the train came through the intersection

The train was the MetroLink commuter service with sixty-six passengers on board. I am not very good at rail matters so all I can tell you is that it was Train 266. Seven seconds after the police officers and pilot were clear of the wreckage, the train came through at full speed, smashing through the tail of the Cessna.

Here is footage taken of the train blasting through the intersection, taken by a bystander who had stopped to look at the scene. You can see that, as the train passes, the bystanders are almost struck by the flying debris.

All over the Internet, I’m seeing arguments about how much time it would take that train to stop, with estimates ranging from 2,300 feet to over a mile. I’m not sure it matters what the braking distance was as there was no attempt to stop.

The engineer driving the train, Metrolink Train 266, said he had no idea about the plane wreck until he was upon it. He said he was going 80 miles per hour at the time and had not been notified of any hazard on the track.

Metrolink have a control room which react to reports of anything blocking the tracks and an official stated that trains can be stopped within five minutes of an emergency call. The transit agency is investigating the situation but implied that it may have been an issue if the emergency number wasn’t phoned immediately. “There is an appropriate procedure to stop rail traffic, and it’s not just calling it in over the radio,” said a Metrolink spokesman.

In the US, blue and white Emergency Notification System signs are posted at every crossing.

The pilot was taken to hospital for treatment but was said to be in stable condition. His son said in an interview that the pilot had suffered pretty significant damage to his face and broken ribs but he is expected to fully recover.

This set of photographs on Facebook showing the scene after the second crash was taken by an ex-Press Photographer:

One question that has arisen is why they didn’t drag the Cessna off the tracks, with the pilot inside, and then deal with freeing him from the wreckage afterwards. Of course, we don’t really know what the situation with the plane was upon landing and how easy it would be to move it. Additionally, Pilot DAR on PPRuNe posted that it is unlikely that they even thought about moving the Cessna first.

I trained firefighters in extrication for years, including from GA planes. We would never attempt to move a vehicle with a patient in it. Only stabilize and extricate. If you try to move a vehicle with someone in it, and something goes wrong, which is really possible, it’s now your cause. The patient could be further injured, further trapped, it could catch fire, roll over, or another first responder could be injured – stabilize only. I’ve crawled into a lot of unpleasant places to cut a patient out of a car. For the couple of accidents where the vehicle had to be moved first, we had already determined that there was no rush, as we’d wait for the coroner. Though we did do auto extrication on or very near railway tracks, we were always able to get the trains stopped first, or it had already stopped. But, knowing that could be impossible to stop a very near train at track speed, my admiration of these police officers!

The FAA and Metrolink have already announced they are investigating as is, of course, the NTSB, although I’m dying to know how they assemble a GO team. My favourite YouTube comment summed it up:

Going to be a weird case for NTSB…

NTSB: Do you need air crash investigator or train crash investigator?

Airport: Yes

The NTSB will also be investigating “the exact timing, communication, and how long the plane was on the tracks.”

I have to admit that in this instance, I’m much less interested in why the plane crashed and much more interested to find out why the train wasn’t stopped.

25 Comments

  • Waiting for the NTSB will take quite some time, but it’ll be worth it.

    The issue with urban airports is interesting, too:

    Cardenas highlighted an earlier crash in November 2020, when a single-engine Cessna 182 approaching Whiteman knocked over power lines before falling onto parked cars on a residential street. That pilot, who died in the crash, was alone in the aircraft and a member of the Civil Air Patrol.

    “Whiteman tower CAP439, we’ve got a loss of engine power here. We’re going to try and stretch it to the runway,” that pilot told air traffic controllers shortly before the fatal crash just over a year ago.
    “Runway’s clear and you are clear to land,” airport staff responded.
    “Hopefully we’ll make it,” the pilot replied.

    In 2018, a 12-year-old was among two killed when a Cessna 150L that had taken off from Whiteman Airport crashed into a building. The pilot, who also died, was a 60-year-old flight instructor, according to media reports.

    Cardenas said the NTSB’s database shows that 16 aviation accidents related to Whiteman Airport have taken place since 2009. 

    And it’ll get only more interesting because of the potential interactions of 5G with radar altimeters that the FAA is adressing right now.

    • “Addressing” as in “nobody appears to have tested any altimeters for bandpass rejection and compatibility with 5G”?

      I’ve been following this kind of closely and nobody appears to have done any testing as far as I can tell. There’s also been a fair amount of FAA bluster and noise that’s been relatively content-free, and I say that as a usually pro-FAA sort of bloke.

      • The RTCA published a paper back in 10/2020 titled “Assessment of C-Band Mobile Telecommunications Interference Impact on Low Range Radar Altimeter Operations” where they took a range of altimeters into a lab, set up delay loops to simulate altitude, and then contaminated the signal with 5G emissions, and measured the levels of interference it took for the altimeters to fail. I think that’s a sensible approach.

  • Well, that pilot was lucky and the cops heroic.

    Metrolink should review its procedures with respect to reporting of emergencies. Introduction of a simpler dedicated phone number allowing instant reactions to an emergency would be a great step forward. Something like 912 perhaps?

    Removing the aircraft from the track may sound easy, but it probably is not as simple as it seems. If it can be done in order to bring the plane with its occupant out of harm’s way I cannot really see why priority must be given to his (her) removal by trained firefighters. After all, once a train hits and destroys the wreck, rescue of the pilot becomes academic and no longer relevant as there won’t be a live pilot to be rescued.
    The pilot was trapped in the aircraft and injured, unable to walk. That points to structural damage and may by itself have made it difficult if not impossible to move it.
    Simply put: it could ONLY have been moved if the aircraft had come to a halt in undamaged condition, or at least reasonably intact.
    The aircraft had to stand freely on its three wheels. Assuming that the wings would still be attached: the area needed to be without obstructions, such as masts or other obstacles in the way of the wings, preventing it to be moved.
    It also had to stand fully on the paved section of the intersection. If not, the rails would have made very effective wheel chocks.
    No, the cops made the right decision. Even more impressive considering that they only had seconds in which to act. Which they did without regard to their own safety. Heroes ! They deserve a medal for bravery. And a promotion in rank.

    • Dragging the plane backwards MIGHT have been possible; moving it forward probably wasn’t (even though it looks like it landed on the crossing rather than on open rails) given report that the nosewheel made a hard stop against one of the rails. However: even if the police hadn’t been trained to extract people rather than moving the vehicle, they probably didn’t realize that moving the airplane might be possible; people on the ground don’t necessarily know how light small airplanes are. (MGW on a C172H is 2300 pounds; they can actually carry 4 adults and reasonable fuel, so this one would have weighed something like 1800 pounds with a single passenger.

      “Metrolink should review its procedures with respect to reporting of emergencies. Introduction of a simpler dedicated phone number allowing instant reactions to an emergency would be a great step forward. Something like 912 perhaps?”

      I’d be astonished if Metrolink could do that by themselves; they’d have to get buy-in from some number of telephone companies to support the functionality. It might be a good idea nationally — or it might be an invitation to stupid pranks.

    • 911 should work, there’s no reason for emergency dispatch not to be able to achieve this, and other countries do it this way (using 112 etc).
      I’m expecting the NTSB report to shed light on what the procedure was, and what it should have been.

      • Whether 911 works depends on how each phone company handles it. There was a horrible case next to Boston a few years ago where an asthmatic died near an emergency room because her phone provider’s 911 calls were remoted to some place distant that couldn’t clearly identify her location. The state solution was a law changing how hospitals identify their ER entrances and how staff respond to calls for nearby help (the hospital in question had two entrances, and staff only checked one); ISTR that the provider was not affected as they operated across state boundaries.

        • That blue sign with an emergency phone number is posted at every grade crossing in the country. The police should know about it, and it needs to be the first thing that they look at when a crossing is obstructed. Just like putting on your oxygen mask before helping others, it doesn’t pay to extract the victim quickly if you are struck by a train while you are doing it. That’s one of the more important things that the NTSB will be looking at. It’s important to understand what went wrong in order to mitigate it in the future.

          • As noted below, the signs do not appear at all crossings.

            However, you have a point that police should be aware that there’s a mechanism. It’s possible that they should be trained to call their own dispatcher with an emergency request to call the train operator, so police can continue dealing with the immediate situation instead of waiting for a train dispatcher to answer and take data.

          • Those signs are required to be posted at every crossing. If you are aware of crossings where those signs are not present, notify the railroad(s) or the FRA.

  • Yeah… there’s no way on God’s green Earth I would have been able to dial that number and get my point across to the respondent in time, even if I magically saw the sign the instant I needed it.

    Plus, am I going to need to give her/him that CPUC or DOT number, and she’s going to have to verify it and type it in? Is that an identifier? Or is it just necessary to mention “Grandview Ave”?

    This does not look like any sort of a system designed for a rapid response.

    Also, there are no fewer than 6 level crossings here in Titusville, and I do NOT see one of those signs at 4 of them.

    • Having done it a couple times, it actually works pretty well. Dial the 800 number, tell the dispatcher you need to report a blocked crossing and what the DOT number of the crossing is. They’ll take care of the rest. Assuming there’s time to actually stop the train, they’re not noted for stopping on dimes after all.

      Also report the crossings that don’t have those to the FRA/Railroad and it’ll get fixed pretty quick.

    • The answer is training. The police should be trained on what to do and on remaining calm during crisis. A properly trained officer should be able to do the right thing.

      The question, of course, is what went wrong here?

  • Once again, Rudy says all that needs to be said.

    In a time that the Police come under a lot of scrutiny, these guys proved their worth.

    So many things could have gone wrong if they tried to move the plane off the tracks. Ruptured fuel cell, 60 gallons of 110LL on the ground is a good starting point of things gone wrong.

    These guys made the right call and had the nerve to stand in harms way. Hats off to them.

  • I was shocked to see the train come through at such a high speed. It did not even slow down; as if the train operator did not notice that the plane was blocking the track.

    • A train traveling at 80 MPH can take a mile or more to stop after an emergency brake application. Once the train was close enough to the crossing for the engineer to see the plane, it was too late for him to significantly slow the train prior to the impact.

      • How far away is a white (or light-colored) C172 visible, when it’s on the (relatively) dark ground instead of somewhere in the sky? From what I see on Google Earth, the track is straight and level for at least 1.5 miles leading up to that intersection; would an alert engineer have been able to stop — or at least slow enough to push the plane rather than turning it to confetti?

        • If the railroad had been notified of the plane, every effort would have been made to stop the train. If it was close, it would have been simply been a radio transmission saying train 266 stop your train. For a safe, non-emergency stop, the engineer would have to have been notified by the time the train was within a couple of miles of the crossing.

          I don’t think that the engineer had a prayer of avoiding a collision. Even on a straight, level track, a human cannot see that far ahead well enough. As for shattering the plane, I think that would have happened at almost any speed. Planes are intentionally made to be very light, because, after all, they need to get off the ground. The trains today are made to withstand 800,000 pounds of compression. They are basically flying brick walls, and they are made that way intentionally to protect the crews and passengers in the event of a collision.

  • The NTSB will find out when the train started braking, and how fast it was going. I wouldn’t speculate on whether the train driver was alert or not before the facts are in.

    • Trains have event recorders that will give that information in detail. There are also inward and outward facing cameras on cab cars and locomotives so we will be able to see what the engineer was doing and what he saw.

      • Yes.
        I believe rail took the idea of event recorders from aviation’s flight data recorders.
        However, cameras in the cockpit are not the norm yet, even though some airlines have them and integrate the footage with their safety reviews. The NTSB has been pushing for that for over 20 years, and ICAO is on board as well.

        • Train-cab cameras have had more impetus than cockpit cameras due to the misbehavior of a tiny number of train crews, e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1987_Maryland_train_collision in which the at-fault crew was toking in the cab. (I remembered this one because the daughter of a family friend was one of the 14 killed.) I can see cockpit crews arguing that they aren’t isolated like train drivers, but cameras on critical positions may have momentum.

  • Collisions between trains and aircraft are rare, I could only find one other:

    At approximately 2000 hours on 18 June, 1950, Ansett Airways’ DC-3 taxied into empty coal wagons (which were part of a train consisting of a D50 locomotive, 53 empty coal-wagons & 1 brake-van) on Runway 22 at Kingsford Smith Airport, Sydney. The DC-3 was extensively damaged & five of the empty coal wagons were derailed. Only the DC-3’s First Officer received minor injuries. 

    I looked at the NTSB report on the “derailment of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus blue train near Lakeland, Florida” on January 13, 1994. It describes two phone calls that went through police dispatch to railway dispatch to the train crew. The first call incurred an 8 minute delay through police dispatch, the second call incurred a 4 minute delay; railway dispatch to train crew only took a minute for both. It appears that using the direct phone number posted at the crossing immediately could save valuable time. It may also a good idea in airports near rail lines for ATC to have the railway dispatch number easily accessible (and to know how to efficiently describe their location).

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