Learjet debris in Bostonia after crash kills all aboard

A private jet with four people aboard crashed in a residential neighborhood near El Cajon on Monday, and authorities reported no survivors.

The Learjet 35A, flying out of John Wayne Airport in Orange County, downed several power lines on Pepper Drive near Bevin Lane and disintegrated on impact — seconds after the pilot is heard to scream in air-traffic control audio “Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!”

Federal Aviation Administration officials said the aircraft had taken off at 6:56 p.m. with four people aboard.

Sheriff's deputy surveys debris field on Pepper Drive after Learjet crash.

“There is very little left of the aircraft,” said Fire Chief Don Butz of the Lakeside Fire Protection District, briefing reporters under rainy skies. “We weren’t able to find any survivors.”

It missed nearby homes, but debris struck at least one car, he said. (Later, the Sheriff’s Department said one home was damaged.)

On Facebook, James Wall posted live video of the aftermath.

The crash was reported about 7:15 p.m. in the 1200 block of Pepper Drive in the unincorporated Bostonia Neighborhood. Butz said there were some initial evacuations, but residents were soon allowed back in their homes.

The area is a few miles east of Gillespie Field, where the plane was headed.

A radio-controlled aircraft buff posted Nest Camera video showing the plane going down and exploding in an intense flash of light. He wrote: “My wife and I heard a loud thunderous noise, and I knew something was wrong.”

Nearby, Nanci Watt was alone at the computer in her Pepperwood Mobile Home Park unit, “Googling and Amazon shopping.”

Living under the flight path to Gillespie Field, she knows the difference between a small plane engine and a jet engine, so when she heard the noise she knew a crash was coming.

“I hit the floor, and once I realized I was still alive I went outside and there was a big … glow and black smoke,” she said, noting the house went black after power went out to the neighborhood.  (Tuesday morning, power was still out.)

She called her husband, Ed, at work in Rancho Bernardo, and then her son nearby. Ed said his wife was “most panicked.”

Nanci said: “I didn’t know if there was going to be a big fire and we’d have to evacuate. We have two dogs. What do we take?”

She said she was outside looking at “the glow” before even fire crews arrived.  

“We were shaking,” she said.

On Tuesday, the NTSB said the plane had been on an instrument approach to Runway 17 at Gillespie Field.

“As the airplane neared the airport environment, the pilot requested a change to a visual approach to Runway 27R,” said an agency spokesman. “Shortly after air traffic control had cleared the airplane to land on Runway 27R, the airplane crashed into a residential area about 1.4 miles from the approach end of the runway.”

The NTSB added:

The Learjet 35A was equipped with a cockpit voice recorder; it was not equipped with a flight data recorder. Once investigators identify and recover the cockpit voice recorder, it will be transported to the recorders laboratory at NTSB headquarters in Washington, D.C., where investigators will attempt to read it out.

If investigators are able to recover usable audio, a transcript of the recording will be created. Although audio recordings of cockpit voice recorders are never released, a transcript of the recording will be available later in the course of the investigation.

NTSB investigators expect to be on scene in El Cajon for about three days documenting the crash site and any perishable evidence. Witnesses to the accident and those that may have video of any aspect of the accident sequence or have information that could be relevant to the investigation should contact the NTSB by email at witness@ntsb.gov.

A preliminary report detailing the circumstances of the accident is expected to be published on the NTSB website in several weeks. The final accident report, including the probable cause and any contributing factors, is expected to be completed in 12 to 24 months.

Deputies from the Santee Sheriff’s Station and Lakeside Sheriff’s Substation immediately responded along with the Lakeside Fire Protection District, California Highway Patrol and El Cajon Police Department.

Other fire units arrived from San Miguel, Santee. Lemon Grove, La Mesa and Bonita fire agencies, Butz said.

Besides an SDG&E crew, a hazardous materials unit was on scene to clean up jet fuel on the road.

“With this weather condition we have, the vapors are going to hang around for a while because there’s no air movement and the cold, moist air keeps all the vapors to the ground,” Butz said.

Video from the scene showed the burning remains of what appeared to be a small executive jet on a street outside homes.

According to FlightAware.com, the Learjet 35A is registered to Med Jet LLC of El Cajon. On LiveATC.net, commenters posted flight info as well, noting the plane arrived at John Wayne earlier Monday from Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

The crash took down a number of power lines, and San Diego Gas & Electric reported at 12:45 p.m. Tuesday that about 225 customers in the El Cajon area were still without power. Power was expected to be restored by early Tuesday morning, according to the utility.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department tweeted at 8:57 p.m. that the fire was out, and added that the FAA and NTSB were notified and will be handling the investigation.

An FAA investigation team was on its way from Seattle, Butz said, along with a local representative of the agency.

Pepper Drive will remain closed between Topper Lane and North Second Street through Wednesday, said the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, citing the time needed for investigators to process the scene.

Updated at 12:45 p.m. Dec. 28, 2021

City News Service and OnScene.TV contributed to this report.