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Questions remain over deadly Watsonville plane crash — and whether having no control tower played a role

San Francisco Chronicle 8/18/2022 By Jordan Parker, Lauren Hepler and Matthias Gafni

UPDATE: Victims of deadly Watsonville plane crash identified

As federal investigators on Friday began digging deeper into the wreckage of a catastrophic midair plane collision at Watsonville Municipal Airport in Santa Cruz County, questions swirled over why the small but busy airport doesn’t have a control tower.

A single-engine Cessna 152 and twin-engine Cessna 340 smashed into each other Thursday afternoon as they were making final approaches into the airport, a spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration said. One person was on board the Cessna 152, while two people — and one dog — were on board the Cessna 340. All died in the crash. Their identities have not been released.

“We are grieving tonight from this unexpected and sudden loss,” said Watsonville Mayor Ari Parker. “I want to express my deepest and most heartfelt condolences.”

A midair collision is exceedingly rare, said Max Trescott, a general aviation pilot of 50 years and 22-year instructor who often flies in and out of the Watsonville airport, and having a control tower might have helped prevent this crash. He said there are maybe a dozen such collisions a year.

Because Watsonville airport has no tower, Trescott said, pilots must communicate among themselves to identify their positions. While not rare — about 90% of airports in the country have no tower — Trescott said Watsonville is a pretty busy facility not to have one.

“If it had a tower, this collision would have been far less likely,” he said.

In the press briefing Friday, Watsonville Municipal Airport Director Rayvon Williams said that the airport would be unlikely to purchase a control tower because the “volume of traffic” at the airport would not support the cost of bringing a control tower into the field.

Williams added that he’s never seen a collision of this nature in his 11 years with the airport.

However, the crash is one of many in the aiport’s history. A plane piloted by one person crashed on Runway 20 at the airport in November 2012, according to an article published by Patch. The pilot suffered minor injuries. An article published by the Santa Cruz Sentinel in March 2021 stated that the airport had 19 crashes in the past three decades.

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Fabian Salazar said officials would scour the scene all day Friday, and that a preliminary report on the crash would be issued in 14 days.

“We are going to look into the man, the machine, and the environment as we look into this investigation,” Salazar said.

According to FAA records, the single-engine Cessna was registered to Monterey Bay Aviation Inc., a flight school and aviation company based out of Monterey. Representatives from the company were not able to comment on the crash by publication time.

The twin-engine Cessna was registered to ALM Holding LLC, based out of Winton, a small town in Merced County.

The Chronicle reviewed audio on of both the final moments as the planes sped toward each other, and then immediately after the impact.

At about 2:54 p.m., the pilot of the twin-engine plane, traveling close to 200 mph, announced over the radio he was a mile out. Immediately, the pilot of a second single-engine Cessna — a smaller and slower plane that had been circling the airport and hanging left to also line up with the runway — announced, “Yeah, I see you’re behind me.”

At 2:55 p.m., the pilot of the smaller plane announced he was going to abort his landing: “I’m gonna go around then, because you’re coming at me pretty quick, man.”

The Cessnas crashed into each other at 2:56 p.m. Radio traffic stopped for 30 seconds before a third pilot warned other pilots of the crash.

As rescuers raced to the scene, two other pilots discussed what happened.

“The twin-engine Cessna was on a long final approach and somebody else was on base turning on final ... approach,” a pilot explained. “The twin-engine Cessna didn’t see him and he crashed into him. The single engine went down and the twin engine rolled into the ground.”

Trescott, the longtime instructor, reviewed the audio and flight data and said it appears the larger plane was going about 178 knots in the final moments before the crash, an “extraordinarily fast” approach and likely twice as fast as the smaller plane.

“A long straight-in final is permitted, but you’re supposed to defer to people in the traffic pattern,” said Trescott, who hosts Aviation News Talk, an aviation safety podcast. “Spotting another airplane can be difficult even under the best conditions.”

Lowell Hurst, a Watsonville City Council member, said one plane went down in a field and the other slammed into a hangar at the airport.

It was not immediately clear whether the planes involved were operating for business or recreational purposes. But Hurst, a Watsonville resident of more than four decades, said the collision recalled for him others in years past, like a 2011 incident when a small plane crashed into a nearby hospital, killing four people.

“It’s always safety first, but you just never know what’s going to happen,” Hurst said. “Gravity’s a very powerful force.”

At Beer Mule Bottle Shop and Pour House, home to a popular outdoor beer garden with views of the runway, an employee said the business was open and operating normally by late Thursday afternoon after a flurry of sirens a few hours earlier.

“There were just a whole bunch of emergency vehicles passing by,” the employee said. “It was on the opposite side of the airport.”

The airport, located in a quiet corner of Watsonville, a community of just over 52,000 people, is known for agricultural exports, including strawberries.

The city has boomed with Bay Area and Central Coast transplants seeking more affordable housing in recent years, fueling new business, including the airport-adjacent Watsonville Hangar complex.

San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Annie Vainshtein contributed to this report.

Jordan Parker (he/him), Lauren Hepler and Matthias Gafni are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email:, and Twitter: @jparkerwrites, @LAHepler, @mgafni

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