SAN DIEGO -- A Navy contractor's aircraft caught fire before it crashed off the California coast earlier this month, killing three people on board, federal investigators said Friday.
The twin-engine Gates Learjet 36A plunged into the Pacific Ocean near San Clemente Island on May 10 while trying to make an emergency landing at a Navy airfield there, according to a preliminary investigative report from the National Transportation Safety Board.
The wreckage of the plane was found underwater but the two pilots and additional crew member — all civilians — haven't been found and are presumed dead, the report said.
The jet was one of two that took off from Point Mugu Naval Air Station in Oxnard and headed south towards San Clemente Island, which is owned by the Navy and is west of San Diego. They were going to take part in training exercises with the Navy.
Shortly after arriving at the exercise site, the crew in the first plane, which was leading, radioed that they smelled an odor in the cabin and the crew of the plane behind radioed that they saw white or gray smoke or gas coming from the left side of the cabin, along with some kind of liquid trailing the jet, according to the NTSB report.
“At this point the lead airplane was not maintaining heading or altitude,” the report said.
The crew of the second plane then saw flames coming from around the rear equipment door of the first aircraft and told the crew to declare an emergency.
The troubled plane planned to land at an auxiliary Navy airfield on San Clemente Island and the other jet maneuvered in front to lead it to the field, the report said.
However, contact was lost as the jets descended.
Broadcast data from the first airplane showed that it made a series of descending turns and was at an altitude of 1,338 feet (408 meters) and about a half-mile (less than a kilometer) from the island when the information stopped, according to the report.
The Learjet's wreckage was located a mile (1.6 kilometers) offshore in about 300 feet (91 meters) of water, and some of the debris showed evidence of a fire before the crash, the report said.
The report didn’t mention a possible cause for the fire or the crash.