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Probe of plane crash ongoing

A Saturday briefing by the National Transportation Safety Board released little new information and requested the public’s help in gathering more information on the plane crash that killed a Fresno flight instructor, and his student last week.

Pilot Joe Kulbeth, 76, and student pilot Saverio Chimienti Jr., 28, were both killed Thursday, about 1 p.m. when the plane apparently plummeted from about 400 to 500 feet into a field just north of Avenue 17 and Road 23, after taking off from the Madera Municipal Airport. The crash was not witnessed, according to authorities, but a passing motorist spotted the wreckage of the plane in the field and reported it to the California Highway Patrol, via 911.

The plane was reportedly flown that day out of Sierra Sky Park in Fresno, and was equipped with dual control yokes, so it is not known which man was operating the plane at the time of the incident. The weather was clear, calm and hot the day of the fatal crash.

NTSB air safety investigator Maja Smith said the investigation was still in the initial stages of gathering facts and they had just recovered the plane for inspection at another location. The fuel tanks on the plane were intact and were not breached in the crash, Smith said, and although the smell of fuel was present at the scene, the plane did not explode or burn.

Smith said the aircraft was a two-seat, light sport plane, and was equipped with a ballistic parachute system, which had not deployed and was still active at the crash site, prompting the response of the Fresno bomb squad to disarm the device. The parachute system contains high pressure explosive components which operate similar to an air bag on deployment.

“This morning the wreckage was recovered and sent to a secure location to start the second phase of the investigation,” Smith said. “We look at three areas, man, machine and environment. The pilots, their flight experience, their medical certificates, how many (flight) hours they have, along with the investigation of the machine, air frame components that might be questionable ... weather data, and any communications from (the Fresno control) tower or local radio communications. We are also here gathering all witness statements we can.

“We would like to invite anybody that was in the area at the time of the accident, not necessarily an (eye) witness, but people who were flying their own planes or might have heard something on the radio to contact us, or their local law enforcement agencies. You can also send an email to with any information they have,” she said.

Smith said the preliminary report would be out in about 5 to 10 days, but the report on the full investigation, along with any probable cause, would only be released after the full investigation process, which takes 24 months. Two investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration were also investigating the scene and incident.

“We did have one witness, another pilot, who said he heard them on the (local pilot channel ) radio back and forth for three or four minutes, so they were here for a while. The last transmission that came from them was they were asking for (courtesy air space) to do a simulated emergency turn around at 500 (feet in altitude), and then he didn’t hear back from them. He then visually spotted the plane down in the field, about 5 to 10 minutes after their last transmission.

“And we’d really like to hear from anybody else who might have been flying (or listening) at the time. They were on the local radio channel where pilots can talk to each other, to make sure there are no collisions, clearing runways, VFR, advisory calls...” Smith said.

The Madera Municipal Airport does not have a radio control tower and is considered an uncontrolled airport, according to Smith, with only visual flight rules and no flight plan, or communications required. Smith said it was still unknown how much fuel was on board at the time the plane crashed but the plane was not fueled in Madera.

Official cause of death will be determined by autopsy, by the Madera County Coroner’s Office.

NTSB records show one previous fatal plane crash at the Madera Municipal Airport in the early morning of June 10, 1992, when a Piper PA 36-300, operated by Madera Mosquito Abatement District, crashed.

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