One dead, three missing after planes collide

The Associated Press
Friday February 16, 2001

LONG BEACH — Two small planes from a flying club collided near the Long Beach harbor entrance Thursday, killing one person and leaving three missing in the Pacific Ocean. 

The body of a man age 40 to 50 was recovered from the 55-degree water, said Fire Department spokesman Bob Caldon. 

Two people were aboard each airplane, fire Capt. Mike Garcia said from aboard a boat participating in the search a half-mile outside the harbor. 

The planes were from the Long Beach Flying Club near Long Beach Airport, where employees and others began gathering after receiving word of the collision. 

“Everyone is devastated right now,” said Joe Gallegos, a flight instructor who spoke on behalf of the club, which has more than 20 aircraft. “We don’t know what happened. We are just grieving for the people who died tonight.” 

Gallegos said he knew the instructors on the planes but he did not identify them. 

He said the collision occurred in airspace frequently used for flight training. 

“A lot of flight schools use that area, not because it’s cleared airspace but it’s just convenient for a lot of the schools,” he said. 

Ed Twining, 44, a Huntington Beach pilot who has been receiving instrument training there for several months, said the planes were a Cessna 172 and a Cessna 152. 

The Coast Guard reported finding a piece of a tail from a Cessna 172 and the manuals from two Cessnas. 

Boat crews scanned the surface in an area about a mile in circumference just outside the harbor entrance and divers working in poor visibility marked an underwater debris field with buoys before the search was suspended because of darkness, Garcia said. Divers were to return there on Friday. 

Vincent Gaitan, 32, of East Los Angeles was fishing when heard a loud noise, thought it was a boat hitting the rocks, but then turned toward the ocean and saw smoke on the horizon. 

“I grabbed my binoculars and saw a trail of smoke about a mile out,” he said. “The smoke looked white but then it turned to black.” 

The collision was reported at 3:44 p.m. by the pilot of an Island Express helicopter, about a quarter-mile south of Queen’s Gate, the ship entrance to the harbor. 

Boats and helicopters from numerous agencies converged on the area, initially inside the breakwater and then focusing on an area outside the harbor. 

The planes may have been flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet to 1,500 feet, Caldon said. 

“On a day like this, where it’s clear and sunny, there’s a lot of air traffic,” he said.