Every few years, a small propeller plane from Santa Monica Airport crashes in a residential area. They have hit streets, garages, an apartment house carport and occasionally a home.
On Thursday, it happened again. Only this time actor Harrison Ford avoided houses and crash-landed his vintage military trainer in the only open space near the runway — the Penmar Golf Course in Venice.
No one was killed.
From the accounts of pilots and flight instructors, Ford, 72, an avid aviator, did exactly what he was trained to do during an engine failure. Without power, he was able to keep up his speed, turn back and head over Penmar, just southwest of the airport.
“He did an excellent job,” said Liz Destaffany, who has been a flight instructor for about 10 years in the Los Angeles area. “You try to do a controlled descent, maintain airspeed and look for a safe place to land. The techniques are the same for Capt. Sully Sullenberger and a small-plane pilot.”
Ford, who is best known for his roles in the “Star Wars” and Indiana Jones movies, had taken off from Santa Monica Airport on Thursday afternoon and headed west. Moments into the flight, he radioed that his engine had failed and air traffic controllers cleared him to return to the airport. He didn’t make it.
As Ford descended over Penmar, the plane clipped a tree. Pilots said it appeared that he stalled the plane close to the ground to slow down. A few second later, he pancaked onto the green fairway turf. A chain-link fence and about 50 yards separated the crash site from a block of houses. The silver and yellow Ryan PT-22 Recruit stayed upright and intact.
Ford’s head was bloodied, but the injuries were not life-threatening. As bystanders carefully extracted him from the little monoplane, a dazed Ford asked, “Where am I?” recalled Dr. Sanjay Khurana, a spinal surgeon who witnessed the crash from about 50 yards away.
Ford “performed a textbook forced landing,” said David Shaby, who has been a pilot for 35 years and flies a twin-engine Cessna out of Santa Monica. “I’ve heard the outcry about how close he was to homes, but where he put the plane down was the safest spot and it was calculated by him to land there.”
According to Santa Monica flight instructor Jeff Martin, Ford had few options and made the right choice when he picked the golf course, which pilots know can be used for emergencies especially during takeoffs, when the vast majority of engine failures occur.
Martin, who has been flying for 20 years, said there are three choices in Santa Monica for pilots facing a life-and-death situation: Lincoln Boulevard, the beach and Penmar.
Pilots contend that the golf course is the most ideal and makes Santa Monica safer than some other local airports that don’t have ample open space nearby.
Martin estimated that three or four planes have landed safely on the links in the last 10 years. In July 2010, however, a pilot was killed when he tried to make an emergency landing there.
Ford “did the best thing he could’ve done,” Martin said, “and he did the thing I’ve feared having to do every time I depart from there in a single-engine airplane.”
Martin, pilots and other flight instructors say that becoming proficient in emergency procedures is an integral part of flight training and is required by the Federal Aviation Administration to obtain and renew a pilot’s license.
To maintain their certifications, pilots must be reexamined every 24 months by flight instructors and demonstrate their ability to handle emergencies such as malfunctioning instruments and engine trouble. Pilots also can pursue additional flight training on their own — something pilots say Ford has done.
Destaffany said that in the event of an engine failure, she instructs her students to maintain airspeed by pitching the plane’s nose down to establish a steady descent. Pilots should look for a spot to land and communicate with air traffic control.
If time permits, the fuel level and ignition should be checked for any obvious problems that can be corrected quickly. Pilots also must be high enough to make big turns like Ford made or risk losing altitude.
“We practice the procedures until you get a trained response, where the steps come almost automatically,” Destaffany said.
Although Ford came down on Penmar, anti-airport activists and local elected officials who have battled to shut down Santa Monica Airport reiterated that its proximity to densely populated neighborhoods makes it unsafe and a nuisance because of aircraft emissions and noise.
Some of those arguments — particularly noise — have been made by residents surrounding other urban airports in the region, such as those in Fullerton, Long Beach and Van Nuys.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board and news reports, at least 11 planes, none of them jets, have crashed in residential areas in Santa Monica and West Los Angeles since 1982. Although pilots and passengers were killed and injured in some of those accidents, no one on the ground has died or been seriously hurt.
An additional 31 accidents, both major and minor, have occurred on the airport grounds, in the ocean, on Penmar golf course and at a Venice intersection. The only jet crash occurred in September 2013, when a Cessna Citation crashed into a hangar after landing.
The accidents have caused the deaths of 25 pilots and passengers. An additional 16 pilots and passengers have been hurt, and 19 accidents did not result in death or injury.
“More pedestrians and bicyclists have been killed and injured on Santa Monica streets than aviators or people on the ground,” said Mark Smith, a veteran pilot who flies a single-engine Mooney 231 out of Santa Monica Airport. “I’m more afraid on Interstate 405 than in the air.”
On Friday, work crews disassembled Ford’s plane while the NTSB continued its investigation.
At a news conference near the damaged Ryan PT-22, Patrick Jones, an NTSB investigator, discussed the crash landing and the safety of Santa Monica Airport
If the NTSB believed that Santa Monica Airport was dangerous, Jones said, the agency would speak out about it. He added that the airport was not unique and is one of many in the country that is located in a congested area.
Of Ford’s flying skill, Jones said, “There are many times that people make successful landings and this is one of them…. When you take off from an airport and you need to return to that airport, you have to pick the best spots there are, and this was apparently the best spot.”