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Family of pilot, passenger in 405 freeway plane crash thank those who helped

Joanna and Ronnie Pisano, daughter and son of the couple, said they “are truly touched and encouraged by all the thoughts and prayers from our family, friends and the entire community”

By Jessica Kwong and Sean Emery
The Orange County Register

IRVINE, Calif. — Flight 852 requested permission to land at John Wayne Airport on Friday morning, June 30.

The air-traffic controller hesitated. Then, he broke the news the Southwest Airlines flight would have to divert to another airport.

“I’m not sure how to properly say this,” he’s heard saying in a recording of the conversation. “Indefinite closure. Disabled aircraft in vicinity of the airport …

“And not in a good way.”

A small aircraft lost its right engine. The pilot apparently tried to gain altitude and make it back to John Wayne’s runway, but came up short – crashing onto the 405 freeway. The plane’s pilot and passenger, identified Monday as Francis and Janan Pisano, suffered vertebrae fractures that required surgery, California Highway Patrol officials said.

Their plane grazed several cars while somehow injuring no motorists.

Joanna and Ronnie Pisano, daughter and son of the couple, said they “are truly touched and encouraged by all the thoughts and prayers from our family, friends and the entire community,”

“We would like to thank the off-duty first responders and nurses who stopped to rescue our parents,” they said in a statement released Monday evening through Orange County Global Medical Center.

The family also thanked the “police officers, paramedics, EMTs and civilians, as well as the doctors and nurses at OC Global Medical Center, who are all to be credited for saving our parents lives. … We are very optimistic about their full and complete recovery.”

They remain in the hospital in stable condition.

Answers to questions about how the plane malfunctioned and why it was unable to make it back to the airport – to say nothing of how the aircraft, in the words of multiple officials, “miraculously” avoided killing anyone on one of the busiest freeways in America – are likely months away.

“We try to find out what happened when things go wrong,” said Eric Weiss, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash. “It’s too early to know what went wrong.”

What follows is a sketch of what is known about the crash and what preceded it – culled from agency documents and officials – and what investigators will try to shed light on in their reviews.

“They’re trying to piece together the puzzle,” Weiss said.

Francis, 62, and Janan Pisano, 55, residents of Coto De Caza, took off from John Wayne Airport shortly before 9:30 a.m. Friday in a twin-engine Cessa 310R. It was registered on Wednesday, June 28 – two days before the crash – to Twin Props 87297 LLC, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

That limited-liability corporation, which has been registered with the California Secretary of State’s Office since 2010, has Francis X. Pisano listed as its CEO. Twin Prop re-registered with the Secretary of State in 2014 and 2016; the business is described in filings as “aircraft ownership.”

The company shares an address with Hoffski Pisano & Co., a certified-public accounting firm that lists as a co-founder Francis X. Pisano. According to the firm’s website, the business focuses on taxation, and has operated since 1982.

The FAA lists a Francis Pisano as having been licensed to fly both single- and multiple-engine planes since at least 2007.

It is unknown where the couple was headed, but shortly after taking off from John Wayne, Francis Pisano realized something was wrong.

“We got a mayday!” a voice identified as Pisano’s says to the air-traffic controller in a recording from the tower. “We got a mayday!”

“Your landing gear appears to be up,” a male voice replied from the tower.

“I know,” the pilot said. “We’re still trying to get a little altitude. … I just lost my right engine.”

Mike Blackstone, the owner of Orange County flight schools Sky Thrills and Air Combat U.S.A., said engines going out are rare.

“These engines are bulletproof,” he said. “They go for 2,000 hours between overhauls. And very rarely do they fail. Catastrophic failures just don’t happen that often.”

But when they do happen, he said, the worst-case scenario is for it to happen right after takeoff –the planes can’t coast to a slow descent like they can if they are higher up.

“It is the most critical time, takeoff on a twin-engine plane,” Blackstone said.

As the plane lost altitude, Pisano received an all-clear signal from the control tower to land back at John Wayne, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.

“It’s strictly up to the pilot,” he said of deciding where to try to land. “The pilot in command has the ultimate decision-making authority.”

John Wayne is a tough place to navigate, Blackstone said, largely because of a steep takeoff that aircraft are required to quickly execute to get high above homes and airport noise sensors.

John Wayne has a single runway that runs perpendicular to the 405 freeway. An aerial view of the topography shows between the freeway and the runway a patch of dirt that acts as a buffer, an area for pilots to shoot for if they can’t make it to the airport.

It’s possible, said John Wayne spokeswoman Deanne Thompson, the pilot tried to make it to that buffer.

“However,” she said, “in instances of serious mechanical failure, getting there’s not possible.”

Instead, the Cessna crashed onto the freeway and skidded to a stop next to a concrete divider, just before the MacArthur Boulevard exit.

“It’s pretty miraculous,” Lindsey Hart, a Caltrans spokeswoman said of the lack of injuries.

Prior to the crash, traffic on the 405 was typical for a Friday morning, Hart said.

About 8,400 vehicles traveled past MacArthur on the southbound 405 toward John Wayne between 8 and 9 a.m., on par with traffic the previous four Fridays, as well as the same Friday in 2016.

“That’s still a high volume,” Hart said.

The freeway’s southbound lanes were closed for some seven hours Friday for the investigation.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators rushed to the crash to begin “preserving perishable evidence,” taking photos and interviewing witnesses, Weiss, that agency’s spokesman, said.

The plane was then taken to a Chino Airport hangar, Gregor said.

Agents will look for signs of malfunction; some parts will be sent to a lab for further analysis, Weiss said.

A preliminary report is expected within the next two weeks.

The final conclusion, open to the public, could be months away.

The NTSB, though, has no role in law enforcement or handing out fines. That is the FAA and California Highway Patrol’s job.

“It’s handled much in the same way as any other collision report,” CHP spokesman Paul Fox said. “We take down their (insurance) information and record it like any other crash. It’s up to the parties involved how they want to handle it.”

Though the investigation is not yet completed, Fox said officers don’t suspect impairment on the part of the pilot.

And in the end, observers noted, Pisano was able to get the plane down – with few people injured.

“They managed to survive it and nobody else got hurt,” Blackstone said. “He didn’t want to hurt anybody, obviously.”

Copyright 2017 The Orange County Register