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Lake Elsinore plane crash kills 2

June 18, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Investigators have been on the scene near Lake Elsinore where the crash of a single-engine plane has claimed two lives. The aircraft had taken off from Corona Municipal Airport late Wednesday afternoon. It went down in hilly terrain, about six miles northeast of Lake Elsinore.

The fact that the plane that crashed was painted bright yellow is what probably helped a pilot from Corona Airport find the wreckage shortly before 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Thursday, representatives from the Riverside County Sheriff's Dept. and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) surveyed the crash site and removed the bodies shortly before noon.

At first glance it seemed things are back to normal at Corona Municipal Airport Thursday, with private planes taking off and landing. But the pilots, people who work and have planes there are quieter than usual and reserved.

Word of the downed aircraft and the death of two people traveled quickly. The wreckage of the yellow, single-engine Champion aircraft was located in a wildlife preserve east of Elsinore.

Pat Brunner is a longtime friend and fellow pilot of the pilot killed in the crash. Stephen Whitson, 70, of Elsinore, and a family friend, Debbie Cunnigham, left Corona at 11 a.m. Wednesday for French Valley. They crashed on the return flight.

"His wife called us yesterday afternoon somewhere between, before 6 o'clock," said Brunner. "I would say 5:45, something like that. We came down here with the intention of helping the search and by that time Dave Stevenson had gone up already and found the aircraft."

Witson had bought the Champion nine or 10 months ago.

"He trained with Dave Stevenson, the man that found him, found the crash site. He's been flying it almost daily," said Brunner. "He's very, very competent in it. He's a helicopter pilot, an airline power-plant mechanic and that plane was in top-notch shape. So he was on top of the game. It's just a mystery."

The wreckage has been removed to a facility in Chino where experts will go over the remains in hopes of solving the mystery.

These investigations are very thorough, very complete, but will take quite some time.

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