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New details on fatal crash of plane carrying three California families [Updated]

December 3, 2010 | 10:47 am

The pilot of a plane that crashed while carrying three California families on a ski trip to Montana in 2009 possibly violated federal aviation regulations by turning and descending from his intended route before receiving clearance from air traffic controllers, according to documents released Friday.

But controllers did not consider the early route deviation a safety risk and released the pilot to land at his own discretion after he cleared a final cloud and reported that the airport in Butte, Mont., was in sight, according to early investigative reports from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Witness interviews revealed that the pilot, Ellison "Bud" Summerfield, was considered competent, thorough and careful, though he had a history of sometimes descending with unusually steep, sharp turns when making visual approaches.

More than 18 months after the March 22, 2009, crash, the documents still do not provide a clear indication of what caused the mysterious crash, which killed all 14 people on board, including seven children under the age of 10.

The occupants of the plane included Vanessa Pullen, 37, a pediatrician; her husband, Mike, 39, a dentist; Amy Jacobson, 35, a dental hygienist; and her husband, Erin, 37, an opthamologist. Also killed were Brent Ching, 37, a Durham, Calif., dentist, and his wife, Kristin, 31, and their two children, Hailey, 5, and Caleb, 3.

The women were daughters of Irving M. "Bud" Feldkamp III, a prominent Redlands dentist and co-owner of the plane who was driving to Montana to meet his children and grandchildren for a vacation near Yellowstone National Park.

[For the record at 11:16 a.m.: An earlier version of this post gave the name of the father of two of the crash victims as Irving M. "Bud" Feldcamp III. The last name is Feldkamp.]

The plane, originally bound for Bozeman, Mont., after it departed from Redlands, Vacaville and Oroville, suddenly and inexplicably requested a diversion to Butte, and the pilot began turning and descending toward Butte before being given clearance by air traffic controllers, according to the NTSB documents.

The reports appeared to rule out possible overloading of the plane, even though it was carrying more passengers than it was rated for -- the children could have been belted together without exceeding the weight and balance limits for the aircraft, and in fact the plane had carried the same number of passengers in the past, the reports said.

Investigators have said they are also looking at icing and other weather conditions, mechanical failures, and pilot performance as other potential avenues of investigation. It is not known when they will release their final report.

-- Kim Murphy in Seattle