Plane crashes on Lake Tahoe takeoff; Palo Alto man killed

07/23/2013 12:00 AM

07/23/2013 7:14 AM

A Palo Alto man was killed and his wife injured when their small plane crashed shortly after takeoff from the Lake Tahoe Airport late Monday morning.

The pilot, Steven Lefton, 66, died on impact.

His wife, Karen Lefton, 67, was airlifted to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno with moderate injuries, according to the El Dorado County Sheriff's Office.

Around 11:15 a.m., a 1963 Mooney M20C crashed in a wooded area shortly after takeoff from the Lake Tahoe Airport, according to Ian Gregor, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Several witnesses at the airport saw it take off and start banking and losing altitude," said Lt. Pete Van Arnum, spokesman for El Dorado County Sheriff's Office. "It had difficulty getting lift."

The plane crashed into several large pine trees and flipped over, landing upside down on U.S. forestland.

Beth Frisby, an off-duty flight nurse with CalStar, happened to be taking a walk near the airport with Dandelion, her 7-year-old golden retriever, when the crash happened.

"I saw a plane fly very low overhead," said Frisby. Five minutes later she came upon the crash.

"There was a woman calling for help," she said. "She appeared to be in the passenger seat, and she was awake and talking to me."

Karen Lefton was trapped under the wreckage, with only her upper torso and head visible. The pilot was unresponsive.

Van Arnum said over 20 firefighters, six to seven fire rigs, a medical rig, a number of law enforcement vehicles, and a CalStar helicopter responded to the crash site.

Frisby estimated that it took firefighters about 10 minutes to extricate Karen Lefton from the plane.

Van Arnum said that the Leftons had been staying at their Lake Tahoe cabin with their daughter and son-in-law. They were planning to fly back to Palo Alto Monday, while their relatives stayed longer in Lake Tahoe.

"When we contacted his daughter, she told us that he's a very experienced pilot. He had over 20 years of flying experience," he said.

Van Arnum said the heat may have played a role in the crash Monday. "They (the Mooney M20C) are fairly powerful and in the summertime, with the high-density altitude, it's hard to get lift," he said, adding that it was 90 degrees Monday. "It could have been a factor."

A Piper Cherokee crashed shortly after takeoff from Lake Tahoe Airport on Aug. 25 last year, killing five people. A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report indicated that the pilot had trouble maintaining the correct fuel mixture prior to takeoff.

Van Arnum said the Lake Tahoe Airport is frequently used by small planes. The airport, which does not have a working control tower due to budget cuts, remains open.

Call The Bee's Tillie Fong, (916) 321-1006.

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