Small Plane Crashes into Houses in California Neighbourhood

Loss of Altitude in the Midst of Fog

At 0755 hours, a Cessna 310 registered to Unique Air Inc. of Santa Clara, California and owned by a man named Doug Bourn, took off from Palo Alto Airport in California. The plane was headed for Hawthorne Municipal Airport when it hit a power line or electrical tower about one mile northeast of the airport. The plane clipped power lines connected to an 80- to 100-foot-tall tower in thick fog, shearing off the top half of the structure. On impact the plane sheared a wing, raining debris down over the middle-class residential area, and then lost altitude. The wing fell onto one house, where a child’s daycare centre operated, and the reset of the plane struck the refront retaining wall of another house down the street before landing on two vehicles in the street. Other cars that were on the street also caught fire. The initial fire created a loud boom followed by a second boom that shook the nearby houses. Firefighters extinguished the fires within 30 minutes. According to Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman, “The plane landed in the centre of the street. If not, many more individuals would have been impacted, perhaps killed. It is either very fortunate or intentional that he was able to do that.” (Wired.com) What is left of the twin-engine Cessna is merely pieces of metal, scattered around the crash site.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said taking off in bad weather is left up to the discretion of the pilot, whether it be commercial or private. He added that most commercial airlines have policies to follow before a pilot decides to fly.

The Pilot and Passengers

Company CEO Elon Musk confirmed that those on the plane were all employees of Tesla Motors. He offered no other details, however, about the identification of the individuals. “Tesla is a small, tightly-knit company, and this is a tragic day for all of us.” (Wired.com)

Daniel Morales said he had flown with the pilot and that was at the airport Wednesday said the man was a “high-ranking official” at Tesla and that two of the electric car company’s other employees were onboard. The San Francisco Chronicle reports the plane is owned by Doug Bourn, a senior electric engineer at Tesla, though it is not clear whether he was onboard.

In its online database, the California Secretary of State lists Doug Bourn as the business’ owner. A biography for Bourn posted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 2007 says he shares the responsibility for the testing and design of the power electronics module for the Tesla Roadster. Before coming to the company, he spent 10 years at IDEO, a product design and development company in Palo Alto. Bourn holds commercial pilot and flight instructor licenses and enjoys skydiving, flying and teaching others how to fly, the engineers society said. He is also a ham radio operator.

No one was home today at Bourn’s residence in Santa Clara, where Bourn lives alone in the single-story house. A neighbour said he last saw Bourn Tuesday morning. Two motorcycles and a Lexus sat in Bourn’s driveway Wednesday. John Clingsmith described Bourn as a “nice guy and a workaholic.” He last saw Bourn when he pulled up at about 2200 hours on Tuesday riding one of his Kawasaki motorcycles.

Tesla Motors

Space-X, Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s aerospace venture, is based in Hawthorne, likely the prime destination for those onboard the flight. Much of the design and engineering work for the Model S Sedan is being done there. Tesla recently closed a $465 million loan from the Department of Energy to get the car built, and the company is planning to go public with an Initial Public Offering.

Miraculous Protection on the Ground

Miraculously, there have been no injuries on the ground due to the crash. The occupants of the other homes have been accounted for, although authorities can’t be sure of the fatality count until crews begin clearing the wreckage.

Pamela Houston, 33, who works at the daycare centre on which the plane’s wing fell, was in the house at the time of the crash. “When we heard the initial explosion I thought it was an earthquake,” she told KPIX-TV. “Then I looked out the window and saw fire.” Seven people were inside the centre when the plane crashed. With Pamela Houston were an assistant teacher, her husband, their three children, and an infant. “I grabbed the baby and we ran into the street. We were all crying. We were screaming. There is not any word to describe the feeling. Some neighbours ran to the house to help. We are very thankful, we give thanks to God. It was no one but God that allowed us to get out safely.” (Mercury News)

The Aftermath

Widespread power cuts have been reported in the wake of the crash. Some neighbours are trapped inside their homes because there are live power wires surrounding the houses. The city of Palo Alto, which provides power through a municipal utility agency, said most of the city and surrounding area had lost power due to the crash.

Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and Stanford Hospital both were operating on backup generators and cancelled elective surgeries for the day, according to hospitals spokesman Robert Dicks. Residents are being asked to consume water, which is pumped to customers with the help of electricity. While schools are without power, they will remain in session, according to the Palo Alto Unified School District.

The National Transportation Safety Board has joined the FAA in the investigation of the crash.

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