The National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report on the July 8 crash near Murrieta, with new details that added to questions about whether the pilots could see the runway as they attempted to land.
The NTSB said the Cessna 550 business jet hit the ground 800 feet (240 meters) short of the runway threshold at French Valley Airport and caught fire.
The airport’s automated weather station recorded clear skies and visibility of 10 miles less than an hour before the crash, but 20 minutes later, there were clouds at 300 feet (90 meters), and visibility was down to three-quarters of a mile. The NTSB said visibility was just a half-mile in fog around the time of the crash.
The plane was making its second attempt to land after a missed approach, which usually happens when pilots can’t see the runway. Air traffic controllers gave the crew permission for the second attempt.
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John Cox, a former airline pilot and now an aviation-safety consultant, said visibility must be a half-mile at big airports with bright runway lights. A smaller airport with less-powerful lighting makes it even harder to see the runway, he said.
Cox called it "a major error" that the private plane descended below the minimum height at which pilots must be able to see the ground at the airport.
"The fact that they were below minimums and landed short (of the runway) is evidence that they did not have the runway in sight," he said.
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Cox said the crew should have tried to land at a different airport.
The NTSB has not yet determined a cause for the crash. That will probably take a year or longer.
Two pilots and four passengers were returning from a 5-hour visit to Las Vegas when the crash occurred.
Local authorities have identified the pilots as Riese Lenders, 25, and Manuel Vargas-Regalado, 32; and the passengers as Abigail Tellez-Vargas, 33, Lindsey Gleich, 31, Alma Razick, 51, and Ibrahem Razick, 46.
Murrieta is about 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles.