A small plane crashed in the parking lot of a busy San Diego shopping center Wednesday evening, killing one of the two women aboard and wounding the other.
“Problem now. I’m not getting any altitude here,” the pilot was heard on a distress call to Montgomery Field.
The fixed wing single-engine Mooney M20L crashed in a parking lot between Target and the Costco Business Center off Convoy Street in Kearny Mesa, about a mile from the airport, around 5:30 p.m. It landed near parked cars but away from main store entrances.
The 52-year-old pilot and her 78-year-old passenger were taken to Sharp Memorial Hospital with major injuries, according to fire officials. The 78-year-old woman suffered serious burns and died at the hospital. The condition of the pilot has not been released.
Family members told NBC 7 that one of the registered owners of the plane - Devon Logan of Point Loma - was aboard the plane.
Two witnesses who may have been trying to rescue the victims were treated for minor burns, fire officials said. One was taken to the hospital, and the other was treated at the scene. The plane did not hit any people in the parking lot when it crashed.
The Montgomery Field radio tower received a distress call from the aircraft right before the crash. The transciption of the call indicates the pilot knew she was in trouble.
“Problem now. I’m not getting any altitude here,” the pilot says.
“27 mike-pappa, full throttle,” the tower answers.
“I’m full throttle,” the pilot replies.
“27 mike-pappa, turn back to the field if you’re able,” the tower says.
“I’m going down,” responds the pilot.
Witness Gregg Smith was leaving work across the street and was only one block away when he saw and heard the aircraft crash.
“I heard the plane coming – it was a different sound – and I knew they didn’t have enough power to make the lift they needed to do,” Smith told NBC 7.
At that point, Smith said he looked up and saw the plane making a turn. “It missed my building probably by about 10 or 15 feet,” he added.
“I heard the distinctive thud of it hitting one of the light poles in the parking lot, and I heard it crash. The next thing I saw was a bunch of flames and black smoke,” Smith continued.
Helicopter pilot Vince Carter was taking off from Montgomery Field at the time of the crash. Carter told NBC 7 he heard the pilot’s distress call and heard her say her power was going out seconds before the crash.
“This is a miracle and testament to her skill as a pilot. I really hope she comes through everything okay. This could have very easily killed a lot of people,” he said. “You could imagine, just shopping at Target, and a plane comes through the roof full of fuel.”
Carter said the area where the aircraft landed is really the only place where the pilot could have gone without causing a lot of damage.
“When we’re flying, we need air going over the wings at a specific speed to generate lift. Once you lose enough air speed, there’s not enough wind going over the wings to generate lift and you don’t fly any more. As you can see, the plane is in a relatively flat position. It didn’t travel extremely far when it hit the ground, so you can assume that it didn’t have a lot of forward momentum going into this,” he said.
“So what probably happened is that in a loss of power and finding a place to put it down, she stalled it out pretty much perfectly in the only spot she possibly could have,” he continued.
"I don’t know what kind of control they had, but they obviously had enough control to bring it down into an area where they were not going to crash into vehicles or buildings,” San Diego Fire-Rescue spokesperson Lee Swanson said.
A small fire sparked upon impact, but firefighters extinguished it quickly, Swanson said.
Witnesses said several heroic bystanders rushed to the aid of the pilot and her passenger right after the crash, pulling the women from the wreckage.
A Costco employee who witnessed the crash told NBC 7 that the person taken to the hospital with minor burns to his hand is another Costco employee.
The Target store was not evacuated and remained open Wednesday evening. A Target employee said fire crews were assessing the building for damage.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is on scene investigating the cause of the crash. The FAA said the aircraft bounced while attempting to land at nearby Montgomery Field but continued westbound and crashed in the Costco parking lot.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will lead the investigation and likely post a preliminary report of the accident within the next week or two. Still, officials said it typically takes the NTSB months to come up with a probable cause for accidents.
Per protocol, neither agency will release the identities of those involved in the aircraft accident.
San Diego Police Department Sgt. Steve Behrendt said the airplane struck a portion of the Target building before landing.
“It did hit the top of the Target building. There is some debris on the roof of the Target and some in the garden area. Then one of the light poles was taken out by the plane,” Behrendt explains.
NBC 7 spoke with a family member of the pilot at UCSD Medical Center Wednesday night who said the survivor of the crash was in stable condition.
According to FAA records, the aircraft is co-owned but registered to San Diego resident William Logan. The family member confirmed William Logan was not aboard the aircraft.
Check back for updates on this developing story.