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California : Pilot’s pier stunt raises safety questions : Racing a Soviet-made jet, he sparked fear in Santa Monica. The FAA is probing civilian use of such planes.

Racing at speeds of up to 350 mph, the Soviet-made military jet made several low-altitude passes at the Santa Monica Pier, seemingly keying on the popular Ferris wheel as frightened onlookers scattered, some screaming.

Emergency calls poured in to police as the aircraft flew about 50 feet off the ground, then spiraled skyward in a series of tight rolls, smoke trailing from its tail as if it were an aerobatic plane. The lifeguard in Tower 26 said the jet passed so close that she felt a wall of heat.

For a few minutes on that November day a year ago, it seemed the pier was under attack.

Instead, officials learned, the startling aerial display was a stunt arranged by a local pilot, convicted felon and production company executive to promote an unfinished movie about a maverick squadron of Americans and Russians on a secret mission to Iran.

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The pilot, David G. Riggs, lost his license and faces a misdemeanor criminal case in Santa Monica. A court hearing to set his trial date has been scheduled for Monday. Riggs declined to comment. His attorney said he did nothing wrong.

But Riggs’ escapade has focused attention on a little-known aspect of aviation: the use of high-performance military jets by civilian pilots and the hazards they can pose to people in the air and on the ground.

The incident has prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to take a harder look at hundreds of experimental exhibition aircraft in its Western Pacific region: California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii. There are about 5,600 planes with that designation in the United States, including aircraft like Riggs’ 1973 Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros, one of the most popular Soviet bloc trainers during the Cold War.

Because they are not built on FAA-certified assembly lines, such experimental exhibition planes are restricted by the government to air shows, flight demonstrations or training flights over sparsely populated areas. The planes cannot carry passengers for hire unless the FAA approves.

Another type of Soviet trainer, an Aero Vodochody L-29 Delfin, crashed while flying in Tehachapi’s Independence Day celebration this year, killing two pilots and narrowly missing a neighborhood.

According to the FAA, Riggs, 47, obtained his private pilot’s license in 1984. Besides the FAA enforcement action and Santa Monica case, court documents show that he served time in Hong Kong for passport fraud. In Missouri, he was convicted several times on theft and fraud charges, including a federal prosecution that resulted in a three-year prison term for wire fraud, bank fraud and passport fraud.

Riggs also has been the target of civil lawsuits, including a pending fraud and breach of contract case filed against him in Los Angeles by 31 people who say they invested about $2.8 million in his production company, Afterburner Films.

According to FAA and National Transportation Safety Board records, Riggs and a second pilot, Skip Holm, left Van Nuys Airport on Nov. 6, each flying an L-39. Holm was in a Canadian-registered plane that Riggs had leased, FAA officials say.

The plan was to do four passes of the Santa Monica coast at a safe altitude as a third small plane flew nearby, towing a promotional banner for the movie “Kerosene Cowboys.”

FAA and NTSB documents show that Riggs flew away from the other two planes and made low passes at the pier and along the beach before Holm told him over the radio to “knock it off.” Riggs concluded the flight by pulling into a steep climb just before he would have hit the pier, videotapes show.

After Riggs lost his pilot’s license, Terry White, a prosecutor in the Santa Monica city attorney’s office, filed a criminal complaint in May, invoking a rarely used section of the state public utilities code that prohibits the unsafe operation of an airplane. “Videos show he came very close to the pier,” White said. “This was a very serious and dangerous act.”

If convicted, Riggs could be fined $1,000 and get up to a year in jail.

Should the case go to trial, his attorney, John Duran, said he would assert that Holm is to blame. “The stunt involved two airplanes,” Duran said. “My client was in the secondary plane. He was just following the pattern of Mr. Holm. They are going to have a hard time proving this case.”

Holm is a Vietnam War veteran who won three Distinguished Flying Crosses and flew more than 350 combat missions as a U.S. Air Force pilot. He left the service as a lieutenant colonel in 1992 and has worked in civilian aviation since.

He described Duran’s strategy as an “insane defense.” Riggs, he said, “was out to sell a movie. He wanted to get publicity.”

In January, the FAA revoked Riggs’ pilot’s license. He appealed to the NTSB, which concurred with the FAA in March and ordered the revocation of Riggs’ license, noting his “flagrant disregard for the rules.”

Two former FAA inspectors, who investigated Riggs’ case before leaving the agency in recent months, contend that the agency should have gone further. They say Riggs and his aviation company, Mach 1 Aviation, may have violated the law by selling rides in the two L-39s at Van Nuys and other fields.

Kevin Sullivan, then an FAA inspector based in Los Angeles, turned up videotapes of trips and balance sheets from Riggs’ company showing that he has sold almost 400 flights to the public for thousands of dollars apiece.

Brochures from Incredible Adventures, a travel company and booking agency in Sarasota, Fla., advertise that a 45-minute ride in one of Riggs’ L-39s sells for about $3,000; the fee includes a movie of the flight.

Riggs is listed as one of the pilots, although he has lost his private pilot’s certificate and FAA records obtained by The Times show that he has not held an FAA waiver to carry paying passengers or a commercial pilot’s license.

According to FAA documents, Sullivan and George Erdel, another FAA inspector, also were concerned that the L-39 Riggs owns was in disrepair -- a potential danger to the public -- and being used improperly as a camera platform for film shoots.

FAA reports show that Erdel and at least two other FAA inspectors discovered that repair records for the plane were incomplete or missing, including documentation that would have shown whether critical time-sensitive parts, such as fuel tanks and turbine blades, were replaced on schedule.

But Erdel and Sullivan say their investigations were cut short by FAA officials, prompting both to lodge complaints with the agency’s inspector general and the federal Office of Special Counsel.

Sullivan, an aviation consultant and veteran pilot who lives in Orange, left the FAA in March when he failed to pass probation for new employees. Erdel, who lives in Tennessee, retired in June after 26 years with the agency.

“Someone has turned a blind eye to this although we had dead-bang cases,” Sullivan said

Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman in Los Angeles, said the agency cannot comment on the investigators’ complaints. But he defended the handling of the Riggs case.

“The facts speak for themselves,” Gregor said. “We revoked Mr. Riggs’ pilot’s license. We also required Mr. Riggs to perform work on his aircraft to make it airworthy and we documented that the work was, in fact, done.”

FAA officials also say they are still keeping an eye on Riggs. In August, they sent him a warning letter stating that the agency would not honor a Canadian pilot’s license he obtained in June, several months after his U.S. license was revoked.

But there might be one thing the agency cannot prevent. A year after his revocation, Riggs can reapply for another airman’s certificate.

If he passes the flight test, he could get his pilot’s license back.

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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latimes.com/california

Video online

See a video of the jet making low-altitude passes at the pier and hear 911 calls.


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