James Horner may have been performing aerobatic maneuvers last month shortly before his single-engine aircraft crashed near the northeast corner of Santa Barbara County, instantly killing the famed movie composer.
A preliminary report released in late June by the National Transportation Safety Board provides the first detailed account of the circumstances leading up to the crash, which claimed the life of the award-winning composer whose work included the movies Titanic and Avatar.
Horner was at the controls and the sole occupant of his S312 Tucano T MKI 1 aircraft the morning of June 22 when it crashed and burned in Quatal Canyon off Highway 33 in Ventura County east of New Cuyama.
The accident occurred during “maneuvering-low-altitude flying,” according to the NTSB. “Radar reviewed by … investigators depicted multiple turns, rapid changes in altitude, and airspeed.”
Horner, who had not filed a flight plan, had been in radio contact with the SoCal Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale, but his plane disappeared from radar at 9:25 a.m., and he was not heard from again.
The flight had originated at the Camarillo Airport in Ventura County.
Little was left of the plane, which sparked a 1-acre vegetation fire, and Horner was confirmed as the pilot through dental records, according to the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office.
There were two witness accounts included in the NTSB preliminary report.
One witness, who was not named, reported that Horner’s plane passed directly over his house — in “straight and level flight” between 500 and 750 feet above the ground.
“He further stated that the sound was different than other airplanes that fly in the area, but it didn’t sound like anything was wrong.”
The witness said the plane continued flying east toward Quatal Canyon Road.
A second witness, who also was not named, said she was outside her home when she saw the aircraft circle and head east, paralleling Quatal Canyon Road and flying up the canyon — about 500 feet above the ground.
“The engine sound was loud and consistent,” the witness told investigators. “After losing sight of the airplane behind a small hill, smoke and dust was seen rising from the canyon.”
The plane was destroyed by “high-impact forces and post-impact fire,” the NTSB said.
A large crater — some 11 feet in diameter and 5 feet deep — was found at the beginning of the debris field, which was 641 feet long and 355 feet wide, the NTSB said.
The wreckage was taken to a secure facility for further examination, the NTSB said.
Preliminary accident reports typically are issued within a few days of an aircraft crash, but final reports can take months to be completed.