The 1986 Cerritos midair collision was a plane crash that occurred over the Los Angeles suburb of Cerritos, California, on Sunday August 31, 1986. It occurred when Aeroméxico Flight 498, a McDonnell-Douglas DC-9, was clipped by N4891F, a Piper PA-28-181 Archer owned by the Kramer family, while descending into Los Angeles International Airport, killing all 67 people on both aircraft and an additional 15 people on the ground. In addition, eight people on the ground sustained minor injuries from the crash. Blame was allocated equally between the Federal Aviation Administration and the pilot of the Piper. The DC-9 was found not to be at fault.
The larger aircraft involved, a Douglas DC-9-32 with tail number XA-JED, was delivered in 1969 to Delta Air Lines as N1272L before entering into service with Aeroméxico in 1979. It was en route from Mexico City to Los Angeles International Airport (with intermediate stops in Guadalajara, Loreto, and Tijuana). N4891F was a privately operated Piper PA-28-181 Archer owned by the Kramer family, which was en route from Torrance to Big Bear City, California. The Piper aircraft, with pilot William Kramer (age 53) and two passengers aboard, had departed Torrance around 11:40 PDT. Kramer had 231 flight hours.
The cockpit crew of Flight 498 consisted of Captain Arturo Valdes Prom, age 46, and First Officer Jose Hector Valencia, age 26. The captain had 4,632 hours of flying experience in the DC-9 (technically referred to in an accident report as "in-type") and a total of 10,641 flight hours. The first officer had flown 1,463 hours in total, of which 1,245 hours had been accumulated in-type.
On a Sunday at about 11:46 am, Flight 498 began its initial descent into Los Angeles with 58 passengers and six crew members aboard. At 11:52 am, the Piper's engine collided with the left horizontal stabilizer of the DC-9, shearing off the top of the Piper's cockpit and decapitating Kramer and both of his passengers. The heavily damaged Piper fell onto an empty playground at Cerritos Elementary School, at these coordinates: 33°51′55.76″N 118°2′23.97″W
Simultaneously, the DC-9, with most of its vertical and all of its horizontal stabilizer torn off, inverted, immediately dove, and slammed into a residential neighborhood at Holmes Avenue and Reva Circle in Cerritos, crashing into a house at what is today 17915 Holmes Avenue, and exploded on impact. The explosion scattered the DC-9's wreckage across Holmes Avenue and onto Carmenita Road, destroying four other houses and damaging seven more, killing all 64 passengers and crew aboard the jetliner and 15 people on the ground. A fire sparked by the crash contributed significantly to the damage.
When the air traffic controller assigned to Flight 498 saw the plane vanish from his radar screen, he called up an inbound American Airlines MD-83 for assistance. The pilot on the passing plane replied that he saw a large smoke plume off to his left, indicating that Flight 498 had crashed.
Thirty-six of the passengers were citizens of the United States. Of the 20 Mexican citizens, 11 lived in the United States and nine lived in Mexico. The Salvadoran citizen lived in the Bay Shore area of the Town of Islip, New York. Ten of the passengers were children.
Of the passengers and crew on the Tijuana-Los Angeles leg:Two passengers and six crew members boarded in Mexico City.
Six boarded in Guadalajara.
Thirty-one boarded at Loreto Airport.
Nineteen boarded in Tijuana.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that the Piper had entered the Los Angeles Terminal Control Area airspace without the required clearance. The TCA included a triangular slab of airspace from 6000 ft to 7000 ft altitude reaching south to 33.714N 118.007W, across the Piper's intended flight path; the Piper could legally fly beneath this airspace without contacting air traffic controllers, but instead climbed into the TCA. The air traffic controller had been distracted by another unauthorized private flight – a Grumman AA-5 Tiger – entering the TCA directly north of the airfield, that also did not have clearance.
The Piper was not (and was not then required to be) equipped with a Mode C transponder, which would have indicated its altitude, and LAX had not been equipped with automatic warning systems. Apparently, neither attempted any evasive maneuvers because neither pilot sighted the other aircraft, though they were in visual range. When an autopsy revealed significant arterial blockage in the heart of the Piper's pilot, public speculation existed that Kramer had suffered a heart attack, causing incapacitation and contributing to the collision; further forensic evidence discounted this, and error on Kramer's part was determined to be the main contributing factor to the collision.
As a result of this accident and other near midair collisions (NMAC) in terminal control areas, the Federal Aviation Administration required that all jets in US airspace be equipped with a traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS), and required that light aircraft operating in dense airspaces be equipped with Mode C transponders which can report their altitude.
A jury ruled that the DC-9 bore no fault, instead deciding that Kramer and the FAA each acted equally negligently and had equal responsibility. U.S. District Judge David Kenyon agreed with the notion that the FAA shared responsibility. Federal Air Regulations 14 CFR 91.113 (b) require pilots of all aircraft to maintain vigilance to "see and avoid" other aircraft which might be on conflicting flight paths. The relative positions of both aircraft at the moment of collision showed no sign of any attempt at avoidance maneuvering by either aircraft.
One of the lawsuits involving victims on the ground had the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit apply the Supreme Court of California's ruling in Thing v. La Chusa to extend recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress to Theresa Estrada, whose husband and two of her four children were among the 15 on the ground killed in the crash. Although she did not witness the crash (which was a major requirement for recovery under Thing), she returned minutes after the crash to witness the home consumed by postcrash fires and surrounded by burning homes, cars, and aircraft debris. In a separate trial on damages, the Estrada family was awarded a total of $868,263 in economic damages and $4.7 million in noneconomic damages, including $1 million for the negligent infliction of emotional distress.
The flight number has been put back into service. Flight number 498 is now the flight from Mexico City International Airport to McCarran International Airport via Monterrey International Airport using a Boeing 737.
This crash was featured in the April 24, 2007, episode of the television show Mayday entitled "Out of Sight" in the original and Air Emergency versions and "Collision over LA" in the Air Crash Investigation version.
It also featured on UK television channel "Quest" on July 16, 2014.
The program Plane Crashes That Changed Flying linked the advance of automatic collision warning and avoidance systems to various aircraft disasters, including the Cerritos collision.
The Smithsonian Channel's Air Disasters documentary series featured this accident in the second season's third episode titled "System Breakdown", released in 2011.
The Breaking Bad episode "ABQ" features a similar collision between two aircraft; the main character in the story, Walter White, is indirectly responsible for the crash. Walter White was also the name of the junior air traffic controller who was guiding the DC-9 prior to the Cerritos crash.
On March 11, 2006, the City of Cerritos dedicated a new sculpture garden featuring a memorial to the victims of the accident. The sculpture, designed by Kathleen Caricof, consists of three pieces. One piece, which resembles a wing, commemorates all the victims who perished aboard the Aeroméxico jet and the Piper. A similar, but smaller and darker wing, commemorates all the victims who perished on the ground. Each wing rests on a pedestal that lists the respective victims in alphabetical order. In front of the memorial lies a bench, which commemorates all victims and allows visitors to sit and reflect on the disaster.