Federal investigators found that the small plane that crashed in Newport Beach's Back Bay and killed three people in November ran out of fuel, confirming earlier speculation.
The private pilot, who was flying home from a surf trip in Baja, refueled in San Felipe and later in Calexico, a border town south of the Salton Sea, according to a preliminary report released Monday.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators talked with ground crew members and another pilot at those airports. But witnesses were unable to say how much fuel the plane had when it took off from Calexico.
"We do not know how much fuel was in that airplane," Wayne Pollack, lead investigator for the NTSB, said during an interview. "We're looking at a fuel-exhaustion scenario."
Ultimately, ounces of water were found in the in the fuel tanks, the report states. Pollack said that water could have penetrated through vents, and not necessarily through a puncture.
In Calexico, the pilot, Chuck Chambers, added 20 gallons of fuel to the tanks, which can hold 60 gallons total. The fuel lineman at the airport said he didn't know how much gas was onboard before he added some to the right wing tank. He also said fuel didn't reach the brim.
As the plane approached John Wayne Airport on Nov. 21, the night of the crash, Chambers twice told a JWA air traffic controller, "We have just run out of fuel."
Chambers had been flying for more than 30 years, his wife said. A real estate broker from Palos Verdes Estates, he was an avid surfer and traveled to Mexico often to visit friends and catch un-crowded waves. The three friends were on their way to Zamperini Field Airport in Torrance when they made the unexpected turn inland toward JWA.
The report describes an account by a Newport Beach firefighter who watched the plane pass over the fire station near Newport Center, less than a mile southeast of the crash site. He heard the plane's engine "sputter," and said it never revved back up. It flew just "three telephone poles' height" above the ground as it passed the witness, the report states.
Chambers and two other South Bay residents, Russell Urban, 63, of Rancho Palos Verdes, and Sean Kelly, 44, of Hermosa Beach, drowned in the crash, as the plane rested upside down in about three feet of water, according to a coroner's report released in November.
After the plane was extracted from a mud flat, investigators found that many of its components were in working order, including the fuel screen and the fuel tank selector.
Pollack from the NTSB said that he is still waiting on standard toxicology and autopsy results, and radar information before he completes the investigation in 2011.
Earlier this month, a firefighter told the Daily Pilot that emergency responders initially were unable to open the doors of the four-seat Beechcraft Musketeer, which was stuck nose-down in a mudflat. About 20 to 25 police and firefighters lifted the plane above ground enough to open the doors, he said. The whole process took about 30 minutes, he estimated, while the tide was rising.