Estate of Robinett v. Estate of Kinikin

On December 10, 2009, a Piper PA-30 airplane with registration number N7881Y crashed into Laguna Madre, approximately a mile and a half from the Charles R. Johnson airport in Port Mansfield, Texas. The pilot and sole passenger were both killed in the crash into water. The flight had left a private airport in Sun Ray, Texas destined for Port Mansfield on a family fishing trip. The pilot filed an Instrument Flight Rules flight plan while en route. The crash happened at night, and night instrument meteorological conditions were in effect.

The pilot held commercial pilot and flight instructor certificates with single and multi-engine land and instrument ratings. He had only been flying for around two years at the time of the accident. At the time of his last rating in March 2009, he had a total of 313.9 flight hours, with 68.6 hours in instrument conditions and 63.2 hours at night.

The Charles R. Johnson Airport in Port Mansfield is an unattended airport that is open to the public. It does not maintain an aviation weather observation system. The runway lights and airport beacon light are set to a low-intensity level unless activated through a common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF). Testing after the crash showed that the lights and CTAF system were in working order, but there is no evidence that the pilot activated them.

As the pilot flew into the area of his destination airport, he began talking to a Valley Approach air controller. The controller told the pilot that there was no weather information available for the Port Mansfield area but gave him weather information for Harlingen, which is 23 miles away. The pilot stated that he had obtained weather information before the four-hour flight, although there is no evidence that he requested a weather briefing from his home airport. He stated that his briefing indicated cloud ceilings should be at 2,500 feet, and he asked the controller if he could descend to 2,000 feet to “take a look.” The controller approved his request to do so. They continued contact, although at times, the controller had trouble hearing the pilot. The controller informed the pilot when he was heading toward the airport and was nine, eight, and then six miles away. He also asked the pilot to “squawk IDENT” on his transponder when he saw the airport. When the controller received the IDENT transmission, he told the pilot he could make a visual approach to the airport.

The pilot flew west of the airport at 800 feet and apparently did not see it. About a minute later the plane’s data stopped responding. Witnesses on the ground reported that there was a heavy haze and mist in the air when they heard the airplane near the water and assumed it was looking for the airport. They did not hear any sound that led them to think the plane was in trouble nor did they hear the sound of a crash. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the plane flew into the water, probably confusing it for the runway. The plane’s landing gear was extended, and the flaps were fully retracted. No mechanical problems were found with the engine.

Slack Davis Sanger represented the family of the passenger on the plane, in the winning (unanimous) jury verdict. The plaintiff alleged that the pilot was negligent in using a visual approach to the airport in instrument conditions of a low cloud ceiling and fog.

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