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SoCal pilot ignored weather warnings before China crash, witnesses say

September 18, 2013|By Barbara Demick and Dan Weikel
  • A 1973 Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros owned by David Riggs sits at the Apple Valley Airport.
A 1973 Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros owned by David Riggs sits at the Apple… (Federal Aviation Administration )

BEIJING -- The Southern California daredevil whose plane crashed into a lake in northeastern China while performing stunts from the movie “Top Gun” had disregarded warnings to cancel his flight because of bad weather, witnesses said Wednesday.

A search for the pilot, David G. Riggs, continued Wednesday, but neither he nor his body had been located by nightfall.

Riggs crashed into a lake near Shenyang on Tuesday afternoon while flying a Lancair 320, a high-performance single-engine aircraft made from a kit.

Riggs was a controversial figure, who had lost his pilot's license twice for buzzing the Santa Monica Pier and for illegally selling rides to the public. Although his license had not been restored, Chinese organizers hired him as one of the star performers in the International Flight Conference & General Aviation Products Expo, which is set to open Friday.

His 18-year-old translator was killed instantly in Tuesday’s crash.

Witnesses said Riggs was practicing a stunt in the rain that required him to gently touch the wheels of the aircraft on the water of the lake to make it appear the plane was skiing.

"The weather was bad. It was raining," said Xu Jiuqing of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, one of the organizers of the air show. “There were suggestions that he cancel his flight, but he didn’t listen to our advice. He insisted on flying."

Riggs’ flight took off at 1:40 p.m. local time from the Shenyang Faku General Aviation Base, and within two miles crashed straight into the lake.

Chinese officials said Wednesday that extensive wreckage of the airplane had been recovered from the lake, but as of Wednesday afternoon, local time, not Riggs’ body.

"They are still searching for him or his body," said Zhi Jiezhi, of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. of China, another organizer of the show.

Riggs, whose aviation company is based in Studio City, is one of the most notorious private pilots in Southern California.

In November 2008, he made several low-level passes over the Santa Monica Pier in an Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros, a Czechoslovakian-built jet trainer once popular with Soviet bloc air forces.

The Federal Aviation Administration revoked Riggs’ flight privileges for a year and he was convicted of recklessly operating an aircraft, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to 60 days of community service and 60 days in county jail, but he served only a few days of his jail sentence because of overcrowding in the facility.

Last November, Riggs lost his pilot’s license for another year for selling rides to the public in an L-39 without FAA approval. The enforcement action stemmed from an accident in May 2012 in which another L-39 crashed in the desert outside Boulder City, Nev., killing a veteran pilot and his passenger.

Authorities said Riggs was flying with another passenger in his own L-39 next to the ill-fated plane shortly before it crashed. He and the other pilot had sold rides to eight people who traveled to Boulder City Municipal Airport.

In an interview with Chinese state media published Tuesday, Riggs praised the rapid development of the Chinese aviation industry. But when asked what advice he would offer to budding pilots, he said they should concentrate not on flying but on their studies.

"Establish a solid foundation while you are young, especially study math and sciences, and continuously strive towards your dreams," he told the newspaper.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

dan.weikel@latimes.com


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