Deadly Accident at Castle Airport

November 17, 2008 6:06:55 PM PST
Federal investigators are looking into an accident at Castle Airport that took the life of a student pilot over the weekend.This accident shocked the students & staff here at the Sierra Academy of Aeronautics. The chief pilot says this is the first ground-based fatality in the school's 44 year history. And authorities say it could have been avoided.

This is the runway where a 26 year old student pilot from the Sierra Academy of Aeronautics was killed Saturday evening. Merced County sheriff's deputies say the student had flown from Castle Airport to Visalia in a single engine Cessna earlier in the day with another student in the passenger seat.

Tom MacKenzie from the Merced Co. Sheriff's Dept. said, "Both of them were certified to fly solo or with an instructor, but they're not allowed to be together."

Deputy Tom Mackenzie says the two students switched seats in Visalia and the 26 year old flew back using the co-pilot controls. But when they landed back at Castle they spotted a fuel truck and worried they might be expelled if the driver spotted them. That's when investigators say the students made a deadly decision.

"The passenger who was in the pilot seat took off on foot while the original pilot who got out, came around the front of the plane, we assume to get back into the pilot seat, and that's when he was struck by the propeller."

Detectives say the student was struck in the head and pronounced dead at the scene.

Sierra Academy of Aeronautics Director Rashid Yahya said, "It's very unfortunate that this thing has happened..."

Rashid Yahya says this is the only ground-based fatality since the school began training pilots in Oakland in 1964. The academy moved to Castle Airport in 2005 and now has about 200 students including many from the Asia-pacific countries. The victim was a Chinese national and reportedly an experienced student. Now staff members are helping his classmates cope with the shocking loss.

"We have student services and we have been talking to them and counseling them."

The Sierra Academy of Aeronautics says it cannot comment on the circumstances of the flight or the accident itself until after the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board complete their investigations.

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