Orlando, Florida, July 29, 2015 — The estate of a woman who died in a 2013 plane crash in Palm Coast, Florida has filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Orlando, Florida, alleging that her death was ultimately caused by the negligence of air traffic controllers. The complaint alleges that controllers failed to reasonably direct the flight to the closest airport using the closest route; instead, ATC directed the distressed airplane through a peculiar series of turns so that it was unable to reach the next closest airport before crashing into a home, killing all on board.
The plane crash lawsuit (case no. 6:15-cv-01230-CEM-GJK) was filed today against the United States of America as the air traffic controllers (ATC) directing this aircraft on the day of the crash, were employees of The Federal Aviation Administration, an agency of the United States Department of Transportation. Darrel Joseph, the administrator for the Estate of Charisse M. Peoples, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Estate and Ms. Peoples’ two adult sons in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Orlando Division.
On January 4, 2013, Charisse Peoples, of Ohio, boarded a 1957 Beechcraft H35 Bonanza plane for a flight from the Saint Lucie County International Airport (FPR) in Fort Pierce, Florida, bound for the Knoxville Downtown Island Airport (DKX) in Knoxville, Tennessee. Accompanying her on the trip was Duane L. Shaw, and Michael R. Anders, a private pilot.
The Beechcraft Bonanza plane departed from Saint Lucie County International Airport at 1:11 p.m. and was operating under Visual Flight Rules (VFR). The flight was proceeding normally until around 2:07 p.m. “I need some help here,” the pilot radioed to ATC after feeling a vibration in the propellers. The approach controller informed Pilot Anders that the closest airport was five miles away. According to the lawsuit, the Flagler Airport was at the time actually about eight miles north of the plane’s position. An airport in Ormond Beach was only six miles to the south.
Under VFR, pilots remain in visual meteorological conditions (VMC) and maintain their navigation and flight attitudes with visual reference to the outside horizon. In contrast, pilots operating under Instrument Flight Rules, (IFR), continuously operate under the positive control of air traffic controllers (ATC) and are generally required to comply with the “clearances” (altitudes, routes, vectors, and procedures) assigned by the ATC controllers.
The pilot also advised that he had an oil pressure problem and would have to drop (descend) quickly. At that time, another controller contacted the Flagler tower to inform its controllers of the inbound “emergency.”
When controllers asked Anders to clarify the problem, he said “…we got a propeller or something going.” According to the lawsuit, the controller should have understood at this point that the loss of either a propeller or engine, in a single-engine airplane constitutes a dire emergency and would limit an airplane’s ability to maintain altitude.
When asked to state his intentions, Anders requested a localizer approach (a localizer approach provides horizontal course guidance to the runway through radio signals). Rather than offering an approach to Ormond Beach, the lawsuit alleges the air traffic controller responded, “…the best we can do is an RNAV at that airport (Flagler) or we can reverse course back to Daytona. The only precision approach we have in our airspace is the ILS at Daytona.” An “RNAV” approach requires a certified GPS with an approach capability to guide the plane to the airport. The pilot’s plane did not have this equipment or the capability to conduct an RNAV approach.
Anders told the air traffic controller that he didn’t need a precision approach and repeated his request for a localizer, or one with VFR conditions. When advised the area’s airports were all operating IFR with ceilings around 900 feet, he requested the nearest airport and stated his intent try to “break out” at 1,000 feet.
When an airport’s broken or overcast ceiling is observed to be lower than 1,000 feet above the ground, or its visibility falls below three miles, it operates under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), under which pilots may still be able to see the airport environment at times but follows a published instrument procedure that uses radio or GPS signals to guide them to the runway (which the pilot lacked).
According to allegations, the normal pattern altitude for visual flights at Flagler is 1,033 feet. A safe descent and landing from a 900-foot ceiling would essentially be normal operation. This, the lawsuit claims, was overlooked by the controllers.
The air traffic controller informed Anders that he would be conducting an ASR approach to Flagler runway 29. (An “ASR” approach [Approach Surveillance Radar] requires the pilot to strictly rely upon ATC’s voice commands for guidance to the runway.) Anders restated that he would try to “break-out,” which reflected his intent to make an essentially normal landing once below the 900-foot ceiling.
Four minutes after Anders initially indicated that he needed help, he informed ATC that the plane had “zero oil pressure but we’ve got cool cylinder head temperature.” The controller acknowledged but never inquired whether Anders could maintain altitude or what other complications he faced. ATC also told Anders that the plane would be kept within five miles of the airport, but after having him make a right turn and descend from 3,400 feet to 2,000 feet, ATC advised that the plane was now six miles away.
After ATC had Anders make a right turn, Anders said that he was “beginning to see the water…” This, according to the lawsuit, reflects that the controller, knowing the flight may have a total power loss, recklessly vectored the flight over open water. The controller then confirmed that the plane was five miles from the runway and then cleared the plane to descend to the minimum descent altitude, stating “the published minimum descent altitude for the RNAV 29 is 560.” The lawsuit further alleges that this wasn’t true, as there was no published procedure or published minimum altitude.
When the plane was three miles out, ATC said it was “left of course and correcting slowly heading 310.” ATC issued a landing clearance but got no response from the pilot. ATC asked to report the field in sight. Again, no response-the plane was now just over two miles away from the runway.
At 2:17 p.m., ATC called the pilot two more times and got no response. The controller broadcast that the plane appeared to be below radar coverage and instructed it to contact Flagler Tower then provided instructions to climb straight ahead to 2,000 feet if the airport was not in sight. According to the lawsuit, the missed approach instruction to climb shows the controller’s reckless failure to understand the dire circumstances facing the pilot. To even suggest that a single-engine airplane with a loss-of-power would have any ability to climb, absent actual knowledge to the contrary defies logic.
At 2:18 p.m., the pilot advised, “…we need help; we’re coming in with smoke.” Less than a minute later, the plane impacted trees and crashed into a house less than a mile from the runway. All three on the plane’s occupants sustained fatal injuries. The only person in the house at the time of the crash was able to escape, unharmed, through a window.
According to the lawsuit, the likely cause of the plane’s power loss was due to a loss of oil resulting in the fracture of a connecting rod in the engine. The lawsuit further claims that ATC negligently failed to immediately guide the plane-as repeatedly requested by the pilot-directly to the nearest airport so that the plane could safely descend below the clouds and land. Instead, the lawsuit claims that ATC circled the plane around the airport to a position where it could no longer maintain altitude sufficient to land.
Air traffic controllers owe a duty of reasonable care to pilots and, in an emergency, are duty-bound to render “maximum assistance” commensurate with the risk. They also owe a duty to issue warnings beyond those required by the manuals when danger to the aircraft is immediate and extreme and when the pilot indicates distress. Controllers must also act when they have reason to know that an emergency situation exists.
“The United States, through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its air traffic controllers, breached its aforementioned non-delegable and non-discretionary duties when it negligently failed to use the reasonable care and diligence exercised by other air traffic controllers under the same or similar circumstances, committing acts and/or omissions constituting negligence,” says aviation attorney Timothy A. Loranger, who is representing Peoples’ two sons in the plane crash case. “While not causing the initial emergency, the ATC’s negligent conduct nonetheless set the disaster’s chain of events in motion.”
The lawsuit further states that the plane crash would not have occurred had controllers immediately directed the pilot into position for a straight-in landing or, alternatively, directing it to a position over Flagler where it could safely spiral down over the airport environment until it broke through the 900-foot ceiling. Loranger added: “This is a needless tragedy. When ATC became aware of the emergency, the airplane had plenty of altitude and maneuvering room to be guided to a safe landing at the nearest airport. Instead, ATC vectored the airplane further away from safety and at the same time required reductions in altitude, thus dooming the hapless victims of their negligence.”
About Charisse Peoples
Charisse Peoples worked for United Technologies in Indianapolis, Indiana, and held a Master’s degree in engineering. She and Duane L. Shaw were returning from a vacation in the Virgin Islands when the fatal crash occurred. She is survived by two sons.
About Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman
The aviation attorneys at Baum Hedlund have handled over 650 commercial and private aviation crash cases across the nation and abroad. The firm has won over $4 billion for clients in all of its areas of practice, including aviation accidents. The firm is listed in Martindale-Hubbell’s Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers, The Best Lawyers in America®, for 2014-15 Top Ranked Law FirmsTM for 2014-15, and five of the firm’s attorneys are listed in the Nation’s Top One Percent, National Association of Distinguished Counsel.