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'Climb immediately': Air traffic audio reveals issues before deadly Santee plane crash

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Posted at 5:31 PM, Oct 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-12 20:31:13-04

SANTEE, Calif. (KGTV) — Audio reveals how quickly issues unfolded during the final conversation between the pilot of the deadly Santee plane crash and air traffic officials.

The audio reveals air traffic controllers working to coordinate the pilots landing at Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport. The plane had taken off from Yuma, Ariz.

In the last minute and a half of audio posted on LiveATC.net, signs of confusion can be heard, stirring more questions of what may have led to the crash.

"Two-two-gulf, looks like you're drifting right off course, are you correcting?" air traffic asks the pilot.

"Correcting, two-two-gulf," the pilot responds.

Soon, the concern by air traffic control becomes more apparent.

"Okay looks like you're descending, sir. I need to make sure you're climbing, not descending," the air traffic controller can be heard saying after instructing the pilot multiple times to climb, citing a "low altitude alert."

"Gulf is climbing," the pilot is heard saying.

"Two-two-gulf, low altitude alert. Climb immediately. Climb the airplane, maintain 5000. Expedite climb. Climb the airplane, please," the air traffic controller says.

Hear the audio below:

Up until the last communication from the pilot, he confirms the commands from the controller. Yet from the actual flight path, climbing is not what he was doing in the final moments. One aviation expert told ABC 10News that could indicate disorientation.

"The plane was it looked like a very high bank angle because you know when you saw one of the videos just before it impacted you can see that the top of the airplane you can see the wings, which means is what it basically out of control," said Bill Hensley, who has decades of experience as both a United States Air Force jet pilot trainer and as a commercial pilot.  

While he does not know the pilot's level of experience or the number of hours he spent behind the controls prior to Monday, Hensley said disorientation could be to blame for the crash. 

"You don't know if you're upside down or right side up you don't know if you're level or if you're 90 degrees ... The unusual thing about aviation is once you get in certain situations your body will tell you your nose is pointed up and you're going up when you're actually going down," Hensely said.

Hensely reiterated that crashes like this are very rare.

Tuesday, it was still unclear what led to the crash that killed at least two people. The plane crashed into a UPS truck, killing the driver, and then into two homes, engulfing both in flames.

Surveillance footage from a nearby home captured the plane's steep descent before a fireball is seen rising from the neighborhood.

The FAA has not been able to confirm how many people may have been aboard the Cessna C340 aircraft. Yuma Regional Medical Center has confirmed that the aircraft was owned by Dr. Sugata Das, but there was no confirmation that Das was the pilot at the time of the crash.

The aircraft is a six-seated, business aircraft that has conducted five flights in the last two weeks, according to FlightAware.

NTSB and FAA investigators are looking into the potential cause of the crash.