WASHINGTON — An anxious 26-year-old flying student killed at Castle Airport outside Merced, Calif., in November failed to see the spinning propeller into which he walked, federal investigators have concluded.
Wei Jin was trying to avoid being detected by airport authorities because he had flown with another student without authorization, the fellow student told the National Transportation Safety Board. That anxiety had fatal consequences about 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 15, 2008.
"We have recognized that it was a tragic accident," Jim Witt, chief pilot for the Sierra Academy of Aeronautics, said Tuesday, "and we have changed a lot of policies. We've had lots of training; we've changed all kinds of things."
The NTSB quietly filed its "probable cause" conclusions for the accident on Thursday. The safety board's conclusions are accompanied by documents ranging from a toxicology report -- no alcohol or drugs were found in Jin's system -- to a poignantly detailed account from Jin's self-described best friend.
Wei Jin and his friend had just landed at Castle after returning from a mid-afternoon flight to Visalia and Chowchilla, investigators said. Jin, who was also known as Roger, was sitting in the right seat of the Cessna 152. He told his friend and fellow flying student Jia Li that he wanted to get out of the plane before anyone saw him.
"I told him it was too dangerous because of the darkness and the propeller is still running," Li told investigators. "But he still wanted to get out of the aircraft from the right side."
Li stopped the aircraft, held the brake and reduced the power. Jin, who seemed particularly nervous that he might be seen from a nearby fuel truck, got out and quickly ran to the front of the aircraft.
"I then hear a loud thump and the propeller is stopped running and the engine is off," Li said in his one-page, single-spaced statement. "I get out of the aircraft and I see Roger on the ground lying in front of the propeller."
Li, who is also known as Edward, was Jin's roommate. Both came from China to study at the Sierra Academy of Aeronautics. In the safety board's nine-page investigative report, Witt underscored that "common sense" is needed around an airplane.
The Sierra Academy of Aeronautics has trained pilots for more than 44 years, and at the time of the November accident the school reported having about 200 students.
Jin had told instructor Philip Conklin that he wanted to do a solo cross-country flight. Conklin told investigators that he endorsed the solo flight, reminded Jin to return before dark and then went back to his apartment to play video games. Jin, meanwhile, had prevailed upon his best friend Li to join him on the flight.
"I told him we are not private pilots and so we cannot fly together," Li recounted. "But ... he told me again he wanted me to fly with him and nothing would happen. We are 'brothers' and if something happens we share. He wanted me to relax."
Li said he waited to join Jin until after Conklin had left the Castle Airport parking lot. Li then sat in the right seat for the approximately 80-minute flight to Visalia, where the two men switched places so Jin was in the right seat.
Conklin learned of the accident through a telephone call. Initially, he thought it was Jin who had hit someone else with the plane.
"So, I got really worried," Conklin told investigators. "I went on the Internet to find some possible legal advice, as it was my solo student who I was told hit someone."
Conklin later was summoned to the airport tower, and in time learned that it was Jin who was killed in the incident. The accident was the first fatality in the flying school's history, though safety board records show a student attempting his first solo suffered minor injuries on Nov. 17, 2007, when he veered into a Castle Airport drainage ditch.
"Everything is moving forward now," Witt stressed Tuesday.