Authorities want to know whether David G. Riggs illegally sold rides to the public in his Soviet-era military jet. The probe stems from the crash of a similar plane in Nevada.
By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
June 9, 2012
Federal authorities are investigating whether a local pilot who lost his flight privileges for buzzing the Santa Monica Pier in 2008 illegally sold rides to the public in his Soviet-era military jet.
The investigation of David G. Riggs stems from an accident in Nevada on May 18 in which a Czech-built L-39 Albatros crashed in the desert, killing a veteran pilot and a passenger who had purchased a ride.
Authorities said Riggs was flying with a passenger in his own Aero Vodochody L-39 next to the ill-fated plane shortly before it crashed.
Both high-performance aircraft had flown that day from Van Nuys Airport to the Boulder City Municipal Airport, where eight people who had bought flights were set to take turns riding in the two-seat planes. The jet trainers were popular in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.
Government regulations forbid carrying passengers for hire in such aircraft unless the owners have permission from the Federal Aviation Administration. The planes can be used for flight training and making feature films or television shows under certain conditions.
If federal regulations were violated, Riggs could face a suspension or another revocation of his pilot's license. He lost his flight privileges for a year after he made several passes in his L-39 over the Santa Monica Pier on Nov. 8, 2008.
FAA officials said he streaked along the beach at extremely low altitude and then pulled up abruptly when he reached the pier, endangering people who stood below. His pilot license was reinstated after the penalty period expired.
The Boulder City crash is being investigated by the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board, which issued a preliminary accident report this week. It contains details about the crash but does not make conclusions about the cause.
"The FAA is very actively investigating this accident and the circumstances behind the aircraft operations," Ian Gregor, an administration spokesman, said Friday.
George Erdell, a retired FAA inspector who handled the Santa Monica case, said the FAA's Van Nuys office has had complaints for years that Riggs was operating his jet contrary to limitations of his experimental airworthiness certificate, but has done nothing until now.
Gregor defended the agency, saying the FAA aggressively investigates complaints when it receives credible allegations that someone is violating federal aviation regulations.
Killed in the Boulder City crash were Richard A. Winslow, 65, of Palm Desert and Douglas E. Gilliss, 65, of Solana Beach, a former Air Force captain and air transport pilot with years of experience flying vintage military jets.
Gilliss lost his flight certificates in connection with the crash of another Soviet-era military jet during an aerial display in Tehachapi on July 4, 2009. The city's airport director and a former Air Force test pilot were killed.
The FAA alleged that Gilliss, who was a flight examiner at the time, falsely stated in a pilot's log that he had checked out the ability of the airport manager to fly the jet before the crash.
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Friday, May 18, 2012 in Boulder City, NV
Aircraft: AERO VODOCHODY L-39, registration: N39WT
Injuries: 2 Fatal.
On May 18, 2012, about 1300 Pacific daylight time, an experimental exhibition Aero Vodochody L-39, N39WT, impacted desert terrain about 1/2 mile from the Boulder City Municipal Airport (BVU), Boulder City, Nevada. Mach 1 Aviation and Incredible Adventures operated the flight under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. The airline transport pilot and one passenger were fatally injured; the airplane sustained substantial damage to the fuselage and wing assembly. The accident airplane, along with another L-39 (N139CK), departed Van Nuys Airport (VNY), Van Nuys, California, about 0730 on the morning of the accident. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the cross-country flight, and no flight plan had been filed. The flight was destined for Boulder City.
A group of eight people had paid for a flight package. The flight was to be 45 minutes long, and at the end of the flight each passenger would be provided a film of their flight. The majority of the group was interviewed, and they stated that they were driven by bus from their hotel to BVU. Once they arrived at BVU, they made their way into BFE FBO (fixed based operator) and were told by someone at BFE that the two airplanes were en route from VNY. While they waited for the airplanes to arrive, the group discussed the order in which they would fly since only one passenger could occupy one seat in each airplane. After the airplanes arrived, the group reported seeing two people exit each airplane. The group talked to the pilots and took pictures of themselves with the airplanes. They moved inside BFE to a conference room where they received a briefing of what to expect. Members of the group indicated that there would be four flights; two flights would occur before lunch, the airplanes would be refueled, and then they would have the final two flights. The passengers did not observe any mechanical problems during the first two flights. The accident flight occurred on the third flight of the day after the lunch break.
The passenger in the lead airplane for the accident flight stated that that he and the other passenger got into their respective airplanes, he did not watch the other passenger get ready for their flight. He stated that he figured out how to put his own seatbelt/safety harness on, and was instructed about the canopy usage. After the canopies were closed, he was able to hear the pilot of his airplane and the pilot of the other airplane. The passenger stated that his pilot received a clearance for takeoff and was notified that a flight of Apache helicopters were inbound for landing. The pilots taxied the airplanes to the runway and came to a stop. The lead airplane was on the left side of the runway and the accident airplane was on the right side of the runway. There was a discussion about the crosswind and if there were any issues on takeoff, his airplane would make a left turn, and the accident airplane would make a "harder left [turn]." To the passenger the takeoff was normal. He recalled looking at the altimeter and noting that about 400 feet above the ground, his pilot instructed the other pilot to stay in formation. The passenger stated that his airplane was in a climbing left turn and he heard the other pilot say mayday three times and "canopy." He looked out of his window and saw the accident airplane in a right turn, then saw it flatten out followed by a puff of dirt. He recalled seeing the accident airplane go underneath one set of power lines. The passenger stated that there were no further communications from the pilot of the accident airplane. One of the helicopters approaching BVU during the airplanes takeoff saw the crash and landed near the accident site to render assistance. The pilot of the lead airplane circled over the accident site and gave the helicopter's crew instructions on how to open the canopies and turn off the engine.
The pilot in the lead airplane stated that the takeoff was normal. The climb out was normal until he heard a "canopy" call coming from the pilot of the other airplane.
The accident site was approximately 1/2 mile northwest of the airport in flat desert terrain. The airplane came to rest intact between two sets of power lines next to an access road. The first identified point of impact (FIPC) was a flat area adjacent to a berm alongside the road; an impression of the airplane fuselage and wings were observed in the dirt at the FIPC. The debris field from the FIPC to the main wreckage was about 480 feet long. Undercarriage and a gear door were found about 100 feet from the main wreckage. The airplane rotated slightly to the west next to the access road. A 25-pound ballast was found on the other side of the access road. Investigators noted a 4-foot-deep by 20-feet-wide crater just behind the engine.