Five killed as Med Flight Lear hits mountain in night VMC
Shortly after midnight on October 24, a Learjet 35A, a Med Flight air ambulance flight, crashed in mountainous terrain eight miles east of San Diego Brown Field Municipal Airport (SDM). All five aboard–the ATP-rated captain, copilot and three medical crew–were killed and the jet was destroyed. The crew dropped off a patient in San Diego and took off from SDM two minutes before the crash, intending to return home to Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ), N.M., on an IFR flight plan. Dark night VMC prevailed.
At 3 p.m. the previous day, Med Flight dispatched the Learjet from ABQ to Mexico to pick up a patient. The crew picked up a medical crewmember at El Paso and flew to Manzanillo, Mexico, where they picked up the patient and one passenger. They then proceeded to SDM, where they landed at 11:24 p.m. The airplane was on the ground at SDM for about one hour, clearing customs, dropping off the patient and passenger, refueling and filing the flight plan. The pilots requested a cruise altitude of 37,000 feet, with the flight departing SDM direct to Palm Springs, direct to ABQ. Estimated time en route was 1 hour, 15 minutes, with three hours of fuel on board.
At 12:24:12, airborne, the crew of N30DK contacted SoCal Tracon to pick up their IFR clearance. At 12:24:23, they were radar identified. The controller told the pilots to turn to a heading of 020 degrees, maintain VFR and expect IFR clearance above 5,000 feet. Radar data showed that the Learjet flew along a track approximately in line with the extended runway centerline. The last radar return was at approximately 12:25:30, at 2,300 feet msl, with the airplane traveling at a 240-knot groundspeed. ATC’s low-altitude warning alerted during the last two radar returns. Weather for SDM was reported as wind calm, ceiling overcast at 2,100 feet agl, visibility eight miles; temperature 14 degrees C, dew point 12.
The San Diego Police Department’s aviation unit arrived at the scene in a helicopter about 20 minutes after the accident, with SoCal Tracon providing radar vectors toward the Learjet’s last radar return. The aviation unit reported encountering a broken-to-overcast layer of clouds as it neared 3,569-foot-high Otay Mountain. They spotted the accident site through their night vision goggles and infrared imaging and headed south of the site, where they were able to fly under the cloud layer. They landed the helicopter approximately 50 feet below the site on a relatively level section of the mountain. The main impact crater was 75 to 100 feet below the cloud layer.