Fatal Crash of LSA at Santa Monica Airport
Yesterday at around 16:30 local time, a light sports aircraft crashed onto the runway of Santa Monica Airport (SMO) in California. The aircraft was a CSA SportCruiser, a two-seater aircraft also sometimes known as a PiperShort. The SportCruiser belonged to a flying school based at the airport. Initial reports are that a 15-year-old was on a discovery flight with a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI).
A discovery flight is typically around half an hour in the air and used as a flight introduction for those considering learning to fly. Typically, a discovery flight will include a pre-flight briefing and walkaround, followed by a brief flight with the instructor in control. Once at a safe altitude, the passenger may be invited to take control for basic turns and altitude changes. The instructor will again maintain control for the descent and the landing.
It’s an opportunity to discover how you feel about the responsibilities of being a pilot in a small aircraft and also can be used to get a feel for the flying school, although the instructor for your discovery flight may not be the instructor that is assigned to you for your lessons.
The ASDB information from FlightAware shows a typical discovery flight, following the coast out to Malibu and Point Dume before circling back towards the airport, with a large turn over the water a few miles out from Santa Monica.
I’m torn about linking to the audio from LiveATC, which consists of 25 minutes of normal ATC audio followed by a voice screaming, “Let go! Let go!” directly before the crash. I’m not going to embed it into the post as it is truly disturbing to listen to, but for those interested, here is a direct link to the heartbreaking audio on LiveATC.
For the rest, I have summarised the recording.
Relatively early on, we hear the flight instructor tell the controller that they are inbound to land (“full stop”). Then, at around the 24:40 point, the controller clears a King Air for take-off and asks the inbound flight to report the King Air in sight.
Once the instructor has confirmed they have the King Air in sight, the controller cautions against wake turbulence and asks the inbound flight to maintain visual separation to the King Air.
The controller clears the flight “for the option,” which means that the flight is cleared to use the runway at the instructor’s discretion. This includes a full-stop landing, as the instructor had requested, but also allows the flight to do a touch-and-go, a stop-and-go or a missed approach. Effectively, the runway situation is clear enough that the training flight can even come to a complete halt on the runway and take off again, if the instructor wishes.
The instructor reads back the instructions and that they are cleared for the option.
As the King Air becomes established in the climb, about two minutes after the take-off clearance, the controller asks the departing aircraft to change to the departure frequency.
The next broadcast is of incoherent sounds and a voice clearly shouting, “Let go, let go, let go!”
From there, it is a jumble of calls until 26:45, as the controller, who seems to be clinging to his professionalism by a thread, explains to an inbound flight that there has been a crash on the field and that the airport is going to be closed for quite a while.
About a minute later, a helicopter pilot states that they have a medic and a doctor on board and asks whether they could be of any help.
The controller, sounding a bit shell-shocked, says he’s not sure and that he’s waiting for a report from those on the ground, but then admits that he doesn’t expect any survivors.
Initial media footage shows the devastation of the crash.
— PupScanLA (@PupscanLA) September 9, 2022
One report says that the aircraft “pitched aggressively nose up” shortly after crossing the threshold for a full-stop landing.
The aircraft climbed steeply and then fell approximately 100 feet and crashed onto the runway. Another eyewitness described the aircraft as starting to stall before entering a spin to the left.
Initially, it seemed like the crash may have been caused by wake turbulence but this description, along with the audio, sounds very much like the student grabbing the controls while close to the ground and pulling the light aircraft into a stall.
The NTSB has started an investigation and the preliminary report should be released in a month.