A San Diego man who attends the same flight school as a fellow student and instructor killed in a plane crash said he too was scheduled to board the doomed aircraft.
Poway resident Ted Nulty is a student pilot at the El Cajon-based Golden State Flying Club – the club that operates the 1981 Piper Cherokee that crashed into the driveway of a home in Santee Thursday morning, about one mile away from Gillespie Field airport.
The aircraft was carrying flight instructor Robert Sarrisin, 59, and flight school student Jeffrey Michael Johnson, 50, when it began sputtering. The plane clipped two homes and then crashed into a driveway in a cul-de-sac on Paseo De Los Castillos south of Prospect Avenue, crashing into two cars as it hit the ground.
Both Sarrisin and Johnson died from injuries sustained in the collision.
Grieving the loss of both victims, Nulty spoke with NBC 7 Friday and said he is in utter disbelief over the accident.
According to Nulty, he had made plans Thursday to board that same Piper Cherokee alongside Sarrisin, but those plans never came to fruition.
Before their planned flight, Nulty said Sarrisin took a flight – which would turn out to be his last – with Johnson. It was supposed to be a one-hour touch-and-go flight.
“Robert had actually scheduled in another flight before I was supposed to go up,” Nulty explained. “It was very shocking to me that the plane I was scheduled to fly in had gone down.”
Nulty, a former air traffic controller for the U.S. Marine Corps, said he found out about the plane crash when a fellow flight school student who knew he was scheduled to fly with Sarrisin called his home to see if he was okay.
Nulty said the news was a shock to him and fellow members the Golden State Flying Club, especially because the Piper Cherokee was a safe aircraft.
“It’s an older model plane, but it’s safe. [The plane] has been a solid airframe for us for years and years,” Nulty explained.
He said the diligent ground and maintenance crew at his flight school is constantly inspecting aircraft to make sure they’re safe to fly.
In 2013, the Piper Cherokee made an emergency landing on State Route 52 when the aircraft’s engine cut out. In that incident two men aboard managed to glide the plane to a safe landing.
Following that incident, Nulty said the flight school immediately replaced the plane’s engine and all accessories.
Since then, it had flown very smoothly. Nulty said almost everyone at the flight school had flown in the aircraft at some point, sometimes even bringing along family members for the ride.
“It’s been a very sturdy airframe,” he added. “It was just a good, old, reliable aircraft.”
Nulty said the loss of both Sarrisin and Johnson is devastating for the San Diego aviation community.
“It’s hit us pretty hard. Robert was a great guy,” he said.
He was close friends with Sarrisin and had recently made plans to take Sarrisin and his daughter out on his boat and catch a concert at Humphrey’s by the bay.
Nulty describes Sarrisin as an extremely cautious pilot and instructor, which makes the crash even more baffling.
“He always was on the safe side of things, which is why we were shocked that the aircraft went down. He always aired on the side of caution,” Nulty told NBC 7.
The investigation into the crash is ongoing, but Nulty and fellow flight club members are anxious to learn the cause of the accident.
Nulty said the Golden State Flight Club has always put an emphasis on safety in the sky, and he’s confident in their aircraft.
In fact, Nulty said he plans to go out flying next week.
“I’ve never seen safety stressed as much as it is at Golden State. They’re an incredibly safe flying school,” said Nulty. “We’re all stunned. Their safety record will speak for itself.”
The aircraft involved in the deadly crash is registered to Volar Corp., which runs the Golden State Flying Club.
Ian McGregor, of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), told NBC 7 the FAA has no prior accidents or incidents on record for the company.
McGregor said the FAA did issue a letter of correction once to Volar Corp. for violating FAA regulation 141.77A, which pertains to pilots issuing graduation certificates to students under certain requirements.
“A letter of correction is on the low end of our enforcement scale,” McGregor explained. “We have not issued any other enforcements [to the company] since 1991."
Sarrisin, a resident of Rancho Penasquitos, was a former Naval Officer described by loved ones as a family man who could find humor in any situation.
Johnson, who lived in El Cajon, leaves behind his wife and five children between the ages of three and 17. His loved ones have launched a GoFundMe page titled the Jeffrey Johnson Memorial Fund.
The page, in part, describes Johnson as a beloved husband and father who had been "pursuing a life dream to learn how to fly" and says he had been taking flying lessons for a couple of months.