Pilot’s Spatial Disorientation Results in Private & Small Plane Crash Lawsuit

Case Title: Nicholson/Riola Estates v. Rico Aviation

On April 28, 2017, a Pilatus Aircraft Ltd PC12 with registration number N933DC crashed near the Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport shortly after take off. The plane was operated as an air ambulance flight and was en route to Clovis, New Mexico, to transport a patient back to Amarillo. The pilot and two medical flight members were killed in the crash, and the airplane was destroyed. A post-impact fire destroyed much of the wreckage. At the time of the crash, instrument meteorological conditions were prevalent, and the plane was being operated under an instrument flight rules flight plan. The plane was owned and operated by Rico Aviation.

As the plane took off, the pilot requested permission to climb to a final altitude of 8,000 feet, which was approved. After reaching approximately 6,000 feet, the traffic controller notified the pilot that he was no longer receiving the plane’s transponder. The pilot did not answer, and there were no further transmissions. A local controller reported seeing a fireball, and video from a nearby truck stop shows the plane descending at a 45-degree angle. The crash occurred in a small pasture. All three occupants were killed upon impact.

The pilot had been employed by Rico Aviation for approximately six months. He possessed a commercial certificate with multiple-engine land and instructor airplane ratings. Several employees and supervisors of Rico Aviation reported having flown with the pilot, and all stated that they had no concerns about his skills or training. He had 5,866 total flying hours in all, but only 73 hours in the Pilatus PC12.

The post-crash investigation indicated the airplane’s autopilot was not engaged at the time of the accident, but investigators concluded the pilot probably used it correctly. The pilot’s supervisors indicated that he had a good understanding of the use of autopilot, but one also stated that his perception was that the pilot would prefer to hand-fly instead of using the automated system. Other operators on this airplane had noted repeated, unexpected in-flight autopilot disconnections, which may have occurred during this flight.

The weather at the time of the accident required instrument navigation due to moderate air turbulence. Flights that landed just before the Pilatus took off noted light turbulence. A commercial flight that departed approximately an hour after the incident reported heavy turbulence and storm cells. No information exists to show what weather information the pilot of the Pilatus was given before takeoff, and it is unknown to what extent the weather may have impacted this flight.

The National Transportation Safety Board ultimately found the accident’s probable cause to be the pilot suffering from spatial disorientation. Based on radar data and simulations, the “apparent pitch and roll angles” could cause the pilot to feel the airplane might be stalling. Even though the airplane descended at a steep level, the pilot likely had an illusion of level flight.

Slack Davis Sanger is representing the family of one of the flight nurses, a 42-year-old single mother of a minor child.

Mike Slack has been practicing law for over 36 years and has litigated hundreds of lawsuits. His experience as a licensed pilot and former NASA aerospace engineer gives him unique insight into aviation accident lawsuits.

Date of Incident

April 28, 2017

Location of Incident

Amarillo, Texas

Represented By:

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