Learjet Crashes At Gillespie Field In Southern California; Four Dead

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A Learjet 35A crashed at Gillespie Field (KSEE) in El Cajon, California, around 7:15 local time Monday night (Dec. 27) while executing an overhead visual approach from the north to Runway 27R. The pilot had canceled his IFR clearance after flying a GPS instrument approach to Runway 17. ATC recordings reveal the pilot requesting the visual approach to 5,342-foot-long Runway 27R, which is 1,200 feet longer than Runway 17.

The tower controller instructed him to cross over the airport to the south and enter a left downwind, and then cleared the Learjet to land. About 75 seconds later, however, the pilot can be heard shouting expletives just before the steep impact, which occurred in the area of the turn from base leg to final. The two pilots and two passengers were killed in the crash.

The aircraft, which was operated by Med Jet LLC, a medical transport service, came down on a street in a residential area, but no one on the ground was injured. The 19-minute accident flight originated at John Wayne Airport (KSNA) in Santa Ana, California. According to FlightAware data, the day’s flying began with a 30-minute early afternoon flight from KSEE to Lake Havasu City Airport (KHII) in Arizona, followed by the early evening departure for the 41-minute flight to KSNA, then back to KSEE.

Including the accident flight, FlightAware history shows 18 separate flight segments for the Learjet within 12 days, ranging from KSEE, the Learjet’s home base, to as far east as Atlanta, Georgia, and Roanoke, Virginia, and as far north as Portland, Oregon. It’s unclear at press time if the final leg was a revenue flight and the two passengers were patients and/or medical personnel. Med Jet was incorporated in January 2019, about two months before the 1985 Learjet was registered to the company. Financial records show the company’s corporate address as what appears to be a residence in El Cajon.

Weather at the time was reported as VFR with light winds, but showing localized rain and broken clouds at 2,000 feet, overcast at 2,600 feet. While many are questioning the pilot’s decision to cancel the GPS instrument approach and request a circling visual approach, one internet thread commenter who identified himself as a Learjet 35 pilot wrote that performance requirements for the aircraft would not allow for landing on the shorter runway, especially when it was wet. The local fire chief told CNN, “When firefighters arrived at the scene there was significant rain occurring and there was a large debris field that stretched about 200 feet.”

FlightAware data does show the Learjet at an unusually low altitude during the start of the visual approach as it crossed over the top of the airport. And during the approach, the pilot asked the tower to turn up the lights on Runway 27R, but the controller responded they were already at 100 percent.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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55 COMMENTS

  1. Quote:

    ” The 19-minute accident flight originated at John Wayne Airport (KSNA) in Burbank, California”

    John Wayne (KSNA) is in Santa Ana, CA, not Burbank. KBUR, Hollywood-Burbank airport is located in Burbank…

    Skylor

  2. SOUNDS like he stalled it on base-to-final. Was low to start with, maybe pulled too hard to make the turn becaus of an overshoot-to-final, or got slow. Overhead patterns take practice—I get rusty quick at these, maybe he was, too. RIP

  3. TEB, TETERBORO, all over again. History repeats itself, repeats itself, repeats itself over and over and over.

    My heart aches for the senseless and needless loss of life, and especially for the families left behind.

  4. The key to a successful landing always begins with a stabilized approach. The circle to land maneuver is difficult to perform while at the same time having a stabilized approach. Visual reference points while maintaining correct airspeed and altitude are critical. Practice in the Sim over and over to the same airport enable us to continue to pass check rides. Performing one to an airport in real world conditions that we may or may not have ever done one at can be a challenge that requires advance planning that you might not have time for during a short flight in congested SOCAL airspace.

  5. Why did they cancel? They cancelled because Runway 27R is not authorized for circle-to-land (CTL) at night. This is because of a very large hill that penetrates the 20:1visual guidance surface. This accident is similar to last summer’s CTL crash at KTRK last summer. Both KTRK and KSEE have significant terrain issues, which preclude reasonable IFR approach minimums.

  6. It’s so disheartening to read of another fatal aviation accident which seem to be prolific these days (maybe it’s just me and not all the recording devices on every corner capturing them all!). A recurring theme seems to be the failure to maintain sufficient airspeed which we we were all taught is the holy grail of sustaining flight. I’m not an investigator nor do I know anything about this crew’s experience, qualifications or mission expectations, but I would agree with the above comment that the aircraft’s age was irrelevant to the cause, especially given its recent flight history.

    May the crew and passengers R.I.P. (sigh….).

  7. You may not care for this post but it needs to be said. We have enough regulations, we don’t need more. FAR 91, 135, 121 are written with the blood of thousands of dead pilots and passengers. In all appearances this violent ending was totally preventable. Someone (like the Director of Ops) had operational control of this negligent-homicide flight. Thats right negligent homicide, let’s call it what it is. This circle resulting in loss-of-control was negligence ending in the unintended deaths of two innocent passengers. If the responsible person did not perish at the crime scene they should be jailed posthaste.

      • Which may be ‘negligent homicide’ depending on jurisdiction and verified facts of the case.

        You may be thinking of [accidental homicide], whereas in this case the flight crew would be considered competent to avoid disaster and it is claimed they violated airport approach rule. That’s IF all facts are known – systems failure has not been ruled out.

        There’s a discussion of the law in New Mexico as it might apply to the shooting by a camera person by an actor, who was depending on others to ensure the pistol he fired was not loaded with anything dangerous. (A messy/sloppy chain of custody it sounds like.) In Conservative Tribune of December 28, 2021.

    • Criminalizing an error adds nothing to aviation safety or the public welfare, and displays an incomprehensible level of arrogance. If the pilot weren’t dead, he certainly would have learned any lesson he needed to learn from this disaster. The rest of us just need to learn from it, not vilify the pilot.

      Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

      • I can tell that I rubbed your male ego the wrong way.

        Wilful Misconduct Definition: “The intentional disregard of good and prudent standards or performance or proper conduct under contract with knowledge that it is likely to result in any injury to any person or persons or loss or damage of property”

        Negligently kill someone with your car and find out what happens to you. Please tell me again why you feel aviation should be exempt from criminal negligence (the wilful kind) prosecution? You somehow think it is a slippery slop for aviation to hold people accountable, in a criminal court, for wilful negligence? You somehow think that the deaths of a few passengers and the subsequent prosecution of the air carrier will be injurious and not helpful to aviation? I wonder if Kobe Bryant (or the two nurses on this flight) would agree with you?

        “No matter how far you go down the wrong road, turn around”. We are at the turn-around point folks. It is time we prosecute the living hell out of aviators and aviation companies for wilful misconduct leading to death. No more free passes.

  8. The LJ35 with the Dee Howard reversers would stop in half RW17’s length even when wet. The risky circle was not needed. If the crew knew that they would have to cancel IFR and circle at night in poor weather to get in, should they have left SNA? The 270 circle to the left has the pilot’s attention out the window to keep the airport in sight. The copilot should be very busy calling altitude, speed, and distance to the runway. If not, losing the aircraft base to final, particularly when you’re already low, is a high possibility. RIP

  9. There are so many issues on this accident, I could take all day pointing them out. It takes a lot for med techs to trust flight crews in the medical transport business. If I was a medical tech/nurse, I would not fly for this company again.

    • How much more information do you need? Is there any doubt in your mind the crew planned the entire flight (except the violent ending) before they left SNA? Is there any doubt in your mind that this company routinely flew this flawed procedure? Circling at night to 27R is NA for a reason. What could possibly go wrong? Careless and reckless operation ending in negligent homicide.

      Secondly I recommend the same indictments for those who held “operational control” over the Kobe Bryant and Truckey accidents. Stop calling these accidents and start calling them what they are, murder scenes. Nothing else is working to stop this repetitive nonsense, it is time to jail the perps.

        • Keith I believe you answered your own question. It was the companies home base. RNAV 17 was their only viable instrument approach at Gillespie, yet they could never land on RWY17 do to it being too short. RNAV 09 was NA for cat C and the LOC D approach required a 1553 FPM sink rate from DEBEY to 27R at 130KTs.

          Familiarity breeds complacency. Based on the preceding information the company shot the RNAV 17 approach every time and circled to 09L or 27R every time.

          The policy of RNAV 17, cancel IFR, circle for 27R is flawed because the circling procedure is NA for night ops. Simply canceling the IFR flight plan doesn’t make the rock piles go away. The procedure is flawed because the crew was likely IFR in this circle after canceling the IFR flight plan. “Turn the lights up to bright” request was only seconds before the crash. The crash was 1.4 miles from the airport. Was the crew 2.5 miles from the airport when they made the request? Who knows. One thing for sure is they were having a hard time seeing a familiar runway in a familiar setting. They were probably having an equally hard time seeing the 894 foot hill and obstruction just north of the 27R centerline about 3 miles (near DEBEY) from the airport. The CVR will answer some of these questions. Like the Colgan BUF accident the CVR will likely point fingers in multiple directions.

          There are no do-overs, and there is no way to turn the clock back. What is done is done. Whom ever had operational control of this flight, such as the D.O., should be criminally prosecuted by county, or by the State of California, for negligent homicide. Anyone that has flown a high performance aircraft like the Lear 35 will tell you that “N/A at Night” means what it says. To circle at night is “an intentional disregard for good and prudent standards”…..

          Wilful Misconduct Definition: “The intentional disregard of good and prudent standards or performance or proper conduct under contract with knowledge that it is likely to result in any injury to any person or persons or loss or damage of property”

      • Your pretty harsh for not having all the facts or even a preliminary report from the FAA or NTSB . But you forgot to ask for criminal charges for the controllers for issuing this approach in the first place. A circling approach is just another procedure
        in the tool box as is the canceling of IFR and asking for a visual. Its done every day and twice on Sundays. Any competent professional pilot should be able to execute these procedures or they should surrender their ticket.

        • Agreed very very harsh. Agreed very very early in the proceedings.

          Your comment about the controllers appears to be sarcasm although the tower did prompt the pilot to cancel IFR. The pilot was cleared to land, and accepted landing clearance, on 17. What is with that! Soon after the pilot asked to squawk 1200 and asked to land 27R. The tower said “understand you are canceling IFR?” “Yes cancelling IFR”. Why didn’t the pilot circle for 9R and keep the IFR flight plan? Who knows. The winds were light across the runway. The tower simply cleared the Lear to land. The tower did not clear the Lear for a circling or visual approach.

          A visual approach is conducted while on an IFR flight plan at the pilots request. That is not what happened here. This was not an IFR visual approach. He cancelled the IFR flight plan (at the towers request) in order to conduct an operation that was not approved for an IFR circling approach at night. “Any competent professional pilot (your words)” would not have circled east for 27R at night IFR or VFR (my words) because of the N/A on the plate. Period. I have been flying professionally for 53 years (including LR-35’s) and know of no one that would have opted to circle east for 27R at night with the plate specifying N/A at night. Are there any alarm bells going off in your head that the circling approach is approved for day ops, but not for night ops? Sum-ting-wong….just say’n…….

        • RR, controllers control traffic and airspace, they are not the approach police. If you request a perfectly legal approach and airport operations allow it, you will be cleared to do so. Your minimums are not their concern.

  10. Yeah, so can’t use the only instrument approach runway because it’s on the runway that’s wet, and short. So the pilot opts for a visual approach to a runway he can’t see. When planning, did the pilot look at the weather and see a rain prediction? Since IFR, I assume he picked an alternate. Maybe that would have been a better choice. On turn to final, perhaps he exceeded a safe bank angle for his airspeed, which maybe was ok for level flight. We do know at a time of crisis a pilot can swear like a sailor.

  11. Not sure I agree with the analysis. I have not heard the term DMMS before, but out of the three training providers I have had training with, none have trained to do a circling approach at Vref +5. In fact none of the airplanes I have trained in and am typed rated in train to maneuver in the circling approach with landing flaps extended. The Hawker I fly will take full power just to maintain altitude with maximum flaps (45) extended. The Hawker uses flaps 25 for circling maneuvering at Vref+20 until in a position to land. Not rated in the Lear so I don’t know what configuration a Lear circles in. Hopefully the NTSB investigation will determine what configuration this crew had set.

  12. 9500 hours in lears,24404 total Lear 24 25 and 35 a serial numbers 330,to35 a 608 , 20 series lears had GE610 strait jet engines,intent power ,35 a had fan jets witch had a lag in power ,a Lear jet is flown on numbers not finesse ,flap positioning and ref plus 10,20 30 40 in degrees of bank angel , to comment on this issue,you really need to know the best corporate jet ever made, jets in that era were mostly under powered , always remember, the lear jet had enough power to get you in to trouble buthad the power to get you out of trouble if attended to

  13. 9500 hours in Lears, 24,404 total Lear 24 25 and 35 a serial numbers 330, to 35 a 608 , 20 series Lears had GE610 strait jet engines, instant power, 35 a had fan jets witch had a lag in power. A Learjet is flown on numbers not finesse, flap positioning and ref plus 10,20, 30, 40 in degrees of bank angle, to comment on this issue, you really need to know the best corporate jet ever made. Jets in that era were mostly under powered, always remember, the Learjet had enough power to get you in to trouble but had the power to get you out of trouble if attended to. Learjets were my life since the early 80’s, too complicated to tell it all.
    It has been said “you don’t fly a Learjet, you wear a Learjet.”

  14. Night circling approaches as has been noted above do not have the same safety margin as other approaches and require great discipline in height and speed maintenance. There are probably other factors here however. I have on many occasions flown a Lear 35 into a local airport at night VFR. The tower usually give us a turn down wind such that we do not have to overfly the runway. On the one occasion we were told to overfly and join downwind it became very difficult. When you turn downwind before the runway you always have the runway lights in view and circuit geometry is easy. If you overfly the runway you can lose the airport environment totally and when turning downwind you are searching for the runway against city and road lights and it can be a real challenge just relocating the runway. This can take your attention away from speed and height maintenance and make a difficult approach so much more so. I now refuse to overfly the runway at night doing a circling approach I want to keep the runway in sight at all times.

    • Interesting. Though at this airport there’s a big hill Northeast of the runway which planes in the pattern need to fly around, keeping the hill inside the pattern. I don’t think they do this at night, and since he was coming in from the north then overflying was necessary. Though he could have come in from the west if he planned the flight accordingly.

  15. “Med Jet was incorporated in January 2019, about two months before the 1985 Learjet was registered to the company. Financial records show the company’s corporate address as what appears to be a residence in El Cajon.” Sounds Like a “shoestring” company. Set up your corporate “office” in your basement and buy a 35 year old business jet. Not the kind of company I would trust to take me anywhere in ANY aircraft.

  16. Well it appears to be the classic stall/spin situation. And at the altitude it happened in that aircraft, it wouldn’t make any difference what he did with the controls. it would have hit the ground before a recovery could have been completed. First he would have had to recover from the spin, then accelerate to flying airspeed, and begin a pullout. Not even close to enough altitude do accomplish that in a Lear 35. He realized that on the way down and knew what was going to happen.

    • Id say it’s an inherent danger built into 135 ops. There is a reason you don’t see these type of poor aeronautical decisions in 121 flights. Poor training and not knowing what you don’t know lead to over confidence, complacency and a lack of understanding the danger and risk involved in something like a night circling approach in a high performance jet configured for landing.