NTSB: Pilot error caused Kern plane crash that killed three

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STALLION SPRINGS, Calif. (KGET) — The pilot of a plane that crashed into one of Kern’s highest mountains didn’t get a pre-flight weather briefing and may have been surprised by a thunderstorm, a 27-month-long federal investigation has determined.

Three people, including a prominent Los Angeles attorney, were killed in the Feb. 21, 2019 crash.

The plane simply flew into the mountain with both engines working and both propellers rotating, according to the National Transportation Safety Board report, released Friday morning. Clouds probably obscured the mountain at the time of the crash, the report said.

Ruben Piranian, 74, was flying two lawyers from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles’ Whiteman Airport. Piranian, 38-year-old Marina Villavicencio and 54-year-old Felipe Plascencia, all from the Los Angeles area, were killed in the crash.

Plascencia was described in his obituary as a “legendary trial attorney and political activist. He was nationally regarded as a leading expert in driving under the influence cases.”

Piranian owned an aircraft repair shop at Whiteman Airport. He was a veteran pilot, but the fatal accident was not his first plane crash. In 2002, the Cessna Centurion he was flying crashed onto a roadway near Whiteman, injuring Piranian, a passenger in the plane and the driver of a car on the road.

Friday’s report notes the Kern County crash site was 41 miles east of a direct course between the two airports, but there was no explanation why the pilot was apparently so far off course. No flight plan had been filed.  

The plane was a 1968 twin-engine four-seat Beech D55. It crashed near Cummings Mountain, southwest of Tehachapi, at around 4:45 p.m. that winter day. Debris indicate it hit trees before slamming into a snow-covered hillside, according to the NTSB report.

“The wreckage was located the next day on rising, mountainous snow-capped terrain at an elevation of about 6,700 ft mean sea level,” Friday’s NTSB report said.

“There were no records of the pilot obtaining a weather briefing or filing a flight plan before departure. It is unknown if the pilot reviewed other weather sources before the flight.

“Terrain above about 4,600 feet in the vicinity of the accident site was likely obscured in clouds with light freezing conditions and snow about the time of the accident.

“The available weather reports, forecasts, and advisories depicted the conditions and identified instrument flight rules and icing conditions along the route of flight,” the report said.

It noted the pilot was flying under visual flight rules, which would have prevented him from flying in severe weather. His pilot’s license restricted him to visual flight rules only. 

“Had the pilot obtained a weather briefing for his planned route of flight, he would have been aware of the weather hazards, and alternate routing may have allowed for safe operations in visual conditions, the report said.

No drugs, alcohol or medical problems were found in the autopsy of the pilot.

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The pilot’s continued visual flight into instrument meteorological conditions associated with mountain obscuration conditions, which resulted in controlled flight into rising terrain. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s failure to obtain a weather briefing,” the report concluded.

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