Tahoe celebration ends with 5 people dying in plane crash


By Kathryn Reed

Five people from Fresno who were in South Lake Tahoe for a birthday celebration died Saturday when their plane sputtered and then nosedived into a field just after taking off at 9:45pm.

Francisco de la Mora, who owned the Piper Cherokee, was piloting the single-engine fixed wing craft. Shannon D. Fleck is the other person the plane is registered to.

With de la Mora were his wife, their 5-year-old daughter, and Harold and Kin Cardwell. The plane could seat seven. De la Mora owned JDM Transport, a trucking company, in Fresno. Harold Cardwell was an insurance agent. Information about the victims is still not complete.

Harold and Kin Cardwell

“I’m sure he was flying right-hand on this plane,” Stephen Buxton told Lake Tahoe News of Harold Cardwell. “He was an incredible pilot. I’ve flown many times with him. He is the one who taught me to fly.”

Buxton had known the 60-year-old Cardwell for more than 30 years. They met in church. While Buxton is now a pastor in the San Diego area, he never ministered to Cardwell. But Cardwell, who owned an Allstate Insurance franchise in the Fresno area, was Buxton’s agent for several decades.

According to Buxton, two adult daughters from a previous marriage survive Cardwell.

“He was a great guy. He was easy to love,” Buxton said. “I’m going to miss him and I know his kids are going to miss him.”

Officials from Mountain West Aviation, which runs the plane operations at the local airport, told investigators the Piper landed Aug. 25 at the South Lake Tahoe airport for a few hours and that the occupants requested a taxi. No gas or other services were requested.

A 1-acre circular area burned after a plane crashed Aug. 25 after taking off from Lake Tahoe Airport. Photo/Claire Fortier

The cause of the crash is not likely to be known for some time as federal investigators do their job. The fuselage is all that remained of the plane after it disintegrated upon impact.

Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board officials have been scouring the site.

Witnesses told authorities they heard the plane sputter before it crashed. It also appeared to bank right, which could have been an attempt to get back to the airport or to avoid the heavily populated area at the end of the meadow.

The plane, according to authorities, needed most of the runway to take off – which is not usual and should have been an indication something was wrong before the plane left the ground.

According to the National Weather Service in Reno, the wind at Lake Tahoe Airport at 9:45pm Aug. 25 was out of the south at 4 to 8mph, so that was not a factor. Plus, it was a clear night.

The pilot was unable to gain altitude after take-off. Photo/Claire Fortier

“They will be out there all night. They will probably remove the bodies sometime tonight,” El Dorado County sheriff’s Lt. Pete Van Arnum told Lake Tahoe News of investigators. “From what I saw, we’ll probably have to go to X-rays and dental charts (for definite identification of the victims).” He added that could take a couple days.

A fire immediately started after the plane crashed Aug. 25. About 1 acre of brush burned a circular area.

This same plane was involved in an accident on March 5, 2005, in Destin, Fla., according to the National Transportation Safety Board. In that accident the two people aboard were not injured. At the time it was registered to other people.

NTSB records said the cause of that accident was, “The pilot’s inadequate compensation for wind during a crosswind takeoff resulting in a loss of directional control and subsequent collision with terrain.”

The last plane crash at Lake Tahoe Airport was Aug. 5, 2007, which killed the Bay Area pilot on impact when he took off on a summer morning heading south. On Aug. 19, 2002, a single engine plane went down near Meiss Meadows after taking off from Lake Tahoe Airport. The Bay Area couple on board died. That crash ignited what became known at the 294-acre Showers Fire.






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Comments (14)
  1. Jonathan Moore says - Posted: August 26, 2012

    This is very tragic for everyone involved. I just have 2 questions. How much would it cost to operate the airport tower from 6Am to 8PM year round and would it have made a difference in this case? Could someone with much more knowledge about airports/airplanes look into it? Thanks.

  2. Biggerpicture says - Posted: August 26, 2012

    A. When the tower was manned it was federally funded, and with the cities $ problems it is out of the question for us to pay for this (in my opinion).
    B. I don’t really see where having the tower manned would have made a difference one way or another were this due to a mechanical failure OR extreme weather condition (wind shears).

  3. James Gallagher says - Posted: August 26, 2012

    Just because an airport doesn’t have a control tower, doesn’t mean its an unsafe airport. Think of it this way – if something goes wrong in the air, how can someone on the ground help you out? A control tower is appropriate when there is enough air traffic to justify one – unfortunately I dont think South Lake Tahoe has the kind of traffic to justify that.

    When flying into South Lake Tahoe you have to be very careful because the airport basically sits in a bowl with mountains on all sides that can quickly out-climb a small airplane. Another consideration is the density of the air. Because the elevation is so high, the air is thinner – therefore the engine will not produce as much power as it would at sea level, the prop doesn’t produce as much thrust, the wings don’t create as much lift. This translates into sluggish performance. Longer take off rolls, decreased climb performance, higher true airspeeds,etc. Coupled with a heavy load, sometimes these small airplanes don’t have the power to climb out.

    Catastrophic engine failures, these days are uncommon but not impossible. Do I have data to back that up – I’m sure I could find a lot of information supporting that claim. In my 10 years of flying, I’ve never had an engine fail on me. That being said, it’s important to let the NTSB do their work. You can only pray for the souls on board – RIP.

  4. Mike and Mary Schmidt says - Posted: August 27, 2012

    We are deeply saddened at the passing of all these souls. Harold has been our insurance agent for many years and we will miss his kindness, humor, and professional skills. Our sincere condolences to both families.

  5. Bob says - Posted: August 27, 2012

    As usual LTN has the complete story.

  6. Careaboutthecommunity says - Posted: August 27, 2012

    I don’t know anything about planes, but 5 people, plus luggage, fuel, etc seems like a lot of weight to gain lift with. Might have been no problem landing here, but a whole other story to take off from here.

  7. X LOCAL says - Posted: August 27, 2012

    Northbound takeoff is the safest takeoff. BUT,
    He did NOT take on fuel so contamination from TVL tanks isnt the cause. He was lighter than “normal” cause he didnt buy gas.
    It was an evening takeoff, Density altitude shouldn’t have been a problem. Its a 7 pax airframe with 5 in it.
    The only thing I see is it wasn;t developing full power- took off downwind with about 6 knots of wind, used almost all the runway from what I can find.
    I pray for their souls.

  8. dumbfounded says - Posted: August 27, 2012

    A control tower would make absolutely no difference in this situation. As far as a cause, please wait for the investigation to be completed.

  9. Caroline says - Posted: August 28, 2012

    Good reporting, but, really, what an offensive title to this story. You could have chosen better wording.

  10. Wendell says - Posted: August 28, 2012

    As a former pilot of a PA 28 Cherokee, I am interested in light plane accidents, I am deeply troubled by the loss of life my prayers are for the people who lost their lives.
    Someone mentioned the lack of a manned control tower. If the control tower was operating, the pilot would have been advised of the proper runway to be used. A mention was made that the pilot took off with a tail wind. It was late in the day and he probably didn’t know which way the wind was blowing. We pilots tried to always take off with a head wind. the ground takeoff roll is less.
    someone mentioned that the pilot didn’t refuel. Perhaps he had the tank selector on the tank he used to fly to Tahoe. It is easy to get confused with the excitement of friends and family onboard. We try to take off on the tank that has the most fuel and turn on the electric fuel pump. I don’t know if these modern planes have the mixture controls along with the throttle controls and the prop pitch controls, but on a high elevation runway we pilots lean out the mixture to find the best power setting for take off in to the wind. and we figured out the density altitude to see if we had any climb ability to be able to take off and clear any obstacles ahead of the flight path.
    I have flown to Lake Tahoe in a Piper PA 28-180 with my wife and two children on a relaxing scenic four hour flight. Whereas the trip by car took 12 hours.

  11. palmira talamantes says - Posted: August 29, 2012

    Hello me and my family were good friends of frank de la mora he was such a great person loving also. To the family of frank sorry for you dad mom and lil sis lost they will be miss also for there friend let them rest in peace. Willvbe in our prayers.

  12. Reina says - Posted: August 31, 2012

    I cant belive these happend de lamora was the best person in the worl he was so nice to every one he dirent care who u were if u need it anuthing he was there for u…. To the familys im sorry for ur lost im gana miss hem so much he was a great dad who love his kids

  13. An Old Friend says - Posted: September 1, 2012

    I will miss you Harold. You were such a gentleman and always brought a smile to my face.

  14. Wendee says - Posted: September 5, 2012

    Kin and Harold Cardwell were friends of mine, it is so heart breaking to see two of the most amazing people I know,lives come to such a tragic end. They were so loving and genuine! They were so in love, I find comfort in knowing that they died together. Now they will spend all of eternity enjoying their blissfull love for eachother! RIP Kin & Harold, you will both truly be missed!