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Unskilled pilot was aboard crashed plane Aviation officials probe failed instrument landing


FULLERTON, Calif. -- The pilot presumed to be at the controls of a private plane that crashed in heavy fog near Fullerton Airport killing three people was not qualified to make an instrument landing, federal aviation officials said yesterday.

But investigators still were trying to determine whether Michael Benson was at the controls of his Piper Cherokee or whether the other man aboard -- who also was a pilot -- was flying Monday when the six-seat Piper Cherokee slammed into a townhouse complex while attempting to land.

The question is a crucial one because only the second man, Les Arehart, was qualified to do a landing with instruments used when visibility is poor, investigators said yesterday. The thick morning fog at the time of the accident obscured the runway and made a visual landing almost impossible.

Moments before the crash Monday, air traffic controllers in San Diego had received a request from the doomed aircraft for an instrument approach to the airport, said National Transportation Safety Board Regional Director Gary Mucho.

Mr. Benson, co-owner of the Cherokee, had never been certified for instrument flying, Mr. Mucho said. Arehart was instrument rated for flying in bad weather, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mitch Parker.

Mr. Benson, 40, and Mr. Arehart, 47, both of Big Bear, died when the plane dived into a Fullerton townhouse complex at 6:35 a.m. Resident Sharon Ernst, 43, was killed while asleep in her bedroom.

FAA officials said that Mr. Benson had a clean record, but Mr. Arehart's pilot license was suspended for 60 days in 1992. Mr. Arehart, who was paralyzed in a 1971 traffic accident, had been cited for losing control of an aircraft during takeoff and striking the runway edge. "He had non-approved hand and brake controls for a paraplegic," Mr. Parker said.

"At this point, we don't know who was at the controls," said Mr. Mucho. "Both men had access to the controls, even though the pilot in the right seat [Mr. Arehart] was paraplegic."

Yesterday, NTSB investigators examined the wreckage, including propellers, the engine and flight controls instruments.

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