Federal investigation begins after fatal Sonoma Valley plane crash

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Federal aviation investigators Friday remained at the site of a deadly plane crash in the Sonoma Valley that killed William “Bill” Sachs Goldman, a San Francisco history professor and member of a renowned philanthropic family.

Goldman’s school-aged children, George and Marie, and their caretaker, Valeria Anselmi of Milan, Italy, were seriously injured in the crash during takeoff from Sonoma Skypark airport about 12:45 p.m. Thursday and rushed by helicopter and ground ambulances to area hospitals. Their conditions were not available Friday.

Goldman, 38, a University of San Francisco assistant professor of international studies, was piloting a single-engine Cirrus SR22 when the plane went down about two minutes after it took off, crashing in a nearby field east of Highway 12, according to official reports.

Federal investigators gave no preliminary assessment of what may have caused the crash.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Peter Knudson said an investigator from his agency and the Federal Aviation Administration as well as a technical expert from the airplane and engine manufacturers will participate in a several-day analysis of the crash site.

“They’re looking for any kind of indication something was amiss, with the engines, the power, a propeller,” Knudson said.

From there, the investigation could take six months to a year and involve reviewing the pilot’s record and background, the airplane’s condition and maintenance as well as factors on the ground that day, including weather, flight plans and communication systems.

Goldman’s airplane appeared to have deployed a ballistic parachute, a safety feature unique to a limited number of aircraft models and best used about 400 feet above ground. Investigators will analyze whether Goldman activated the parachute, which operates manually, or if it deployed on impact.

Last year, the manufacturer of Goldman’s airplane, Cirrus Aircraft, was given a safety award by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Air Safety Institute because of the company’s effort to improve its aircraft safety record, which hit a low in 2011 with 16 fatal accidents but has since improved, according to the safety institute.

A key factor to an improved safety record, with an accident rate at about half the industry average according to the organization, was getting pilots to activate the parachute more often.

The ballistic parachute is a unique feature of the plane and functions best at a minimum 400 feet above ground. Goldman’s plane crashed within about two minutes after takeoff and it’s unknown precisely how far above ground the aircraft reached.

Investigators may have to rely on witness statements to estimate the plane’s height because it’s possible the plane never reached an altitude where it might have been detected by radar, according to Knudson. That height depends on the terrain.

“We look at all of those things, and then we come to a determination of probable cause of the crash,” Knudson said.

Goldman was born in Washington, D.C., to Richard Goldman and Susan Sachs Goldman.

He is the grandson of Richard N. and Rhoda H. Goldman, who began the Goldman Environmental Prize honoring people involved in grassroots environmental efforts around the world, often called the “Green Nobel.”

Goldman is married to Serra Falk Goldman, a San Francisco attorney at Falk, Cornell & Associates law firm, who is on the USF School of Law Board of Trustees.

His family couldn’t be reached Friday.

Goldman has taught at University of San Francisco since 2012 as an assistant professor in international studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

University President Paul Fitzgerald released a statement late Thursday about Goldman, saying the USF community was “devastated,” calling him “an accomplished scholar, a beloved and generous teacher, and a valued member of our community.”

Goldman earned his pilot’s license in 2009 and his medical certification, required of all pilots, was most recently renewed July 11, according to Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor.

Since 2013, Goldman had flown 13 missions helping critically ill patients get to medical appointments and services for a Santa Monica-based charity, Angel Flight West.

Josh Olson, Angel Flight West executive director, said Goldman was based out of San Carlos and flew missions that stretched from southern Oregon to Central California.

His last flight for the organization was on June 1. He flew a Morro Bay woman in her 40s suffering from a seizure disorder and chronic neuropathy to the Bay Area where she was receiving a rare treatment regimen at Stanford University. Goldman was one of about 1,500 pilots in the western United States who donate their time and planes to give adults and children with serious medical conditions or other significant needs free air transportation, often to receive medical treatment.

Olson said the pilots’ donations are significant, given the cost of air travel and the travel time involved.

“Bill and others have repeatedly told me they get more out of it than they’re giving, even though it’s an expensive and time-consuming commitment,” Olson said. “He was a guy who had a zest for life and was really generous.”

Ron Price, manager of Sonoma Skypark, said Goldman first flew into the airport on Tuesday and had told someone at the airport he and his family were leaving on a short trip and planning to return.

The airport has no tower, and pilots are under no obligation to report a flight plan unless they intend to travel in a controlled airspace, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Price was outside when Goldman’s plane took off, and then “I heard an explosion and saw a puff of smoke” in the nearby field on the other side of a road from the airport.

“I am saying a prayer for the kids who are in the hospital,” Price said.

The Sonoma County sheriff’s coroner will conduct a medical examination to determine how Goldman died. An office spokeswoman said the examination has not yet occurred.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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