Mid-Air Collision over Cerritos in 1986

1 Sep 17 7 Comments

In 1986, I lived on the outskirts of Cerritos, a ‘gateway’ city in the southeast of Los Angeles County. No one outside of California had ever heard of Cerritos, hell, most of California had not heard of Cerritos. When my friends and I were asked where we were from, we tended to just say Los Angeles or, if pressed for specifics, Long Beach.

On the 31st of August, that all changed and Cerritos became easily identifiable, known all over the country as ‘that place where the plane crashed’.

I’ve never written about the incident where a four-seater Piper Archer inadvertantly bumbled into Los Angeles International airspace and clipped the fin of an Aeroméxico DC-9 on approach. The horizontal stabilizer and rudder were torn off of the DC-9 which flipped over and plunged into the residential area below, taking out a city block and killing 15 people on the ground. The devastation was like nothing I’ve ever personally experienced before or since.

There’s no good reason as to why I have never done this one: I’ve read the report and know more about the crash than I do about most others. I guess it just always seemed like too big a thing to tackle. Also, it was over thirty years ago: my own memories are hazy and probably trivial in the scheme of things. I volunteered to help that night as residents were put up in a school gymnasium filled with cots (camp beds). On the wall was a big board for people to write their names, in order to help the survivors to find each other.

So I was glad, this morning, to see that This Day In Aviation featured the crash yesterday, with photographs from the time and a good write-up of the report.

This Day in Aviation: 31 August 1986

At approximately 11:41 a.m., Pacific Daylight Time, William Kenneth Kramer departed Zamperini Field (TOA) at Torrance, California, flying a Piper PA-28-181 Archer II, FAA registration N4891F.

The PA-28-181 was a single-engine, four-place, light airplane with fixed tricycle landing gear, built by the Piper Aircraft Corporation in 1976. It carried the manufacturer’s serial number 77-90070. It was owned by William Kramer. In addition to the pilot, there were two passengers on board, Kramer’s wife of 30 years, and their 26-year-old daughter. The family’s destination was Big Bear City Airport (L35), high in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California.

It’s a good piece and I recommend that you read it.

The author blames the pilot of the Piper Archer for getting lost in the first place, which I think is overly simplistic. I agree with the report’s conclusion, when all’s said and done, which is that an air traffic control system must provide collision protection in a world where we know mistakes happen.

Of course, this was 1986. The combination of enhanced ATC systems and wide-spread adoption of traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS) mean that today, this accident would almost certainly have been avoided.

I’d like to say that current GPS systems contribute too, making it unlikely that a GA pilot will inadvertantly fly into restricted airspace in the first place but, having done it myself (clipping the edge of the London Control Area), I can attest to the fact that technology can’t fix stupid.

Meanwhile, I’m going to use that article as an excuse to take the rest of the day off and, instead of writing, I am going to drag my mother sight-seeing, as she’s visiting for a fortnight. She says to tell you hello and please buy my books.

See you next week!

Edit: I’ve received a note pointing out that neither I nor This Day in Aviation mention the fact that the pilot of the Piper Archer was said to have suffered a heart attack directly before the mid-air collision. I have to admit, I always presumed that this was caused by the view of a DC-9 filling his windscreen. Certainly, the NTSB considered that this did not contribute to the collision by causing pilot incapacitation.


  • Sylvia,
    Before even reading this I feel that I must, not so much correct but add a comment that may shed some more light on this and similar incidents:
    In the earky ‘eighties I was flying a Cessna Citation, N26498, on an IFR flight into Nice (LFMN) Airport.
    We were on a long approach, established on the localizer, past St. Tropez, flying level and maintaining the initial approach altitude when we met a Robin (a French-built s.e. light aircraft) dead-opposite which appeared to fly on the LLZ reciprocal track. At a combined closing speed of perhaps 325 kts, it was past us before we even had time to react. The lateral distance was 50m, perhaps less: even in the split second we had to identify the aircaft we could clearly see the pilot.
    ATC ignored my calls, simply in effect refusing to accept my attempts to file a “near miss” report.
    We landed and at the “bureau de piste” I called the air traffic controller. The conversation as I remember went along the following lines:
    “Ah, you are the Citation pilot who wanted to report a near miss, hein?”
    “Yes, indeed I do.”
    “Are you sure about that?”
    “Yes, of course”.
    “Ah well, in that case we might file a violation against you”.
    “What do you mean?”
    “Well, he had a perfect right to be there. You were in VMC. It is also your duty to keep a proper look-out. Perhaps you failed to keep a proper look-out, hein? If you file a report against the Robin pilot, we will file a report against you for failing to keep a proper look-out yourself!”
    Needless to say, a “near miss” was not reported.
    The gist of the matter is that in VMC, even on initial approach, in controlled airspace and on an IFR clearance, it still is incumbent on the pilot to keep a look-out and ATC can deny full responsibility for separation between aircraft.
    It is not the only occasion where I experienced blatant abuse of the rules, both were in French airspace and in both cases the air traffic controllers blatantly protected French pilots.
    But the bottom line is that French ATC abused a rule that in VMC a pilot cannot assume that even under positive radar control, in controlled airspace and under IFR air traffic control will be fully responsible for separation between aircraft.

  • I’ve received a note pointing out that neither I nor This Day in Aviation mention the fact that the pilot of the Piper Archer was said to have suffered a heart attack directly before the mid-air collision. I have to admit, I always presumed that this was caused by the sight of a DC-9 filling his windscreen. Certainly, the NTSB considered that this did not contribute to the collision by causing pilot incapacitation.

    I’ve added this to the above post as I think not everyone reads the comments (You should all read the comments! They are the best bit!)

  • I had some other near misses. One was at night, departing from a Nigerian airport (I thing it was Sokoto) in a Learjet 25D, shooting through FL 250. In those days, communications were not always reliable. HF was used by ATC to communicate between various stations but this could take time and the night effect often made the frequencies unstable.
    I only heard later that I had had a near miss with a B737, operated by Nigerian Airways and leased from Air Tara. Some days later I met the Irish first officer who told me that we had passed very close. They had clearly seen us, we never knew that we had been in any danger.
    I had a near miss, actually two in the space of less than 20 minutes, at Paris Le Bourget. It was the day of the show and many aircraft were departing to make it before the airport would be closed for the airshow
    Departures were on two runways, one towards the north (I think it was 02), the other towards the east (runway 07). We were cleared to taxi from parking F and had to cross 02 (I think now 03). We were cleared to cross but something did not seem right in my mind. There was a small building just left of the taxiway before the runway. I stopped, just in time to see another aircraft on take-off emerging from behind the building. A little bit unnerved we continued. In heavily accented English I was instructed “position and ‘old”. I understood this as a clearance to take position on the runway and hold. But before I moved onto the runway, I noticed, again in time, a light aircraft on short finals.
    When I challenged the controller I was told that he had told me to “‘old position”. Insofar as I am still convinced he had muddled his words but nothing had happened.
    On another occasion I witnessed what could have been a very serious incident. Paris CDG was very busy at night with the movement of cargo airlines. Medium-sized aircraft that included B737 and similar were to use an intersection, only “heavies” (and Concord, but that did not operate on night cargo flights) from the beginning.
    The cloud base was low, perhaps 400 feet when a 737 was cleared to line up. It was still awaiting take-off clearance when another aircraft was cleared to land on the same runway. ATC communications with the landing aircraft were in French. And only by good luck, the pilot still waiting at the intersection about 1500 m. from the threshold was French too. He immediately told ATC that he was still on the runway.
    And told :”cleared immediate take-off, expedite”.
    I was involved with another incident, flying a Citation 2, N121C from Cannes Mandelieu to Prestwick. It was before the emergence of RVSM. We were cleared to FL390 and slowly climbing through FL350 when we heard an “aaahhh” from behind us. Looking right, an Air France B727 sailed majestically past us: climbing through those levels, the TAS of the Citation was perhaps 250 kts, the 737 was in level flight and substantially faster.
    We tried to contact ATC (Marselle) to report the near miss. To no avail.
    This changed when the Air France pilot came on the radio. There was a rapid exchange in French. And I realised that the Air France pilot and ATC were concocting a version that would put the blame on us. It was obvious that they did not expect the pilot of an American registered bizjet to understand enough French to realise that he was being “framed”. But I did. After a while, the French pilot signed off, telling the controller that he would file his report as discussed and was transferred to another control centre. Only then, I think it may have been after 10 minutes, did I get a chance to get word in. I said, this time also in French, that I would also file my report. After a shocked silence, I was quickly transferred to Paris ATC.
    After arrival in Scotland we filed our report with the CAA. The called us back in quick time; they took this story very seriously.
    But a few weeks later they called again. French ATC had told the UK CAA that they had been unable to find any record of this incident and the ATC tapes had been erased.
    Anyone still not afraid of landing?

  • “Anyone still not afraid of landing?”

    In general, no. In France, have they yet gotten behind “I spit on your aeroplanes!” (to quote the famous routine) yet? i.e., how long ago were these episodes?s Maybe I need to rethink where I’ll travel….

  • I live 1 mile south of this site. I was watering my front lawn when I heard a large thundering bang.
    I thought it was a Space Shuttle, which sometimes caused a sonic boom in our area during it’s descent.
    Than when looking into the sky I saw airplane pieces falling to the ground and than say the smoke from the ground.
    Considering the population density of the neighborhood, this could have been much worse. As it was, a family with a party of friends in one of the houses was wiped out.

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