Pilot convicted of recklessly operating aircraft for buzzing Santa Monica Pier


A pilot and movie producer who startled beachgoers by buzzing the Santa Monica Pier in a Soviet-era military jet was convicted Thursday of recklessly operating an aircraft.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court jury found that David G. Riggs, 48, violated a rarely used section of the state public utilities code designed to protect life and property from careless and reckless pilots.

Judge Harold Cherness is scheduled to sentence Riggs on Monday. The misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Prosecutors also say they may ask the judge to restrict Riggs’ pilot’s license, which was recently renewed following a yearlong revocation by the federal government.

“This was a clear-cut case of careless and reckless endangerment of the public,” said Terry White, who heads the criminal division of the Santa Monica city attorney’s office. “Flying a plane along the shoreline at 250 knots [about 287 miles per hour] is a dangerous act no matter how skilled a pilot you are.”

Prosecutors accused Riggs of making low-level passes near the coastal landmark on Nov. 6, 2008, to promote an unfinished film his company was making about a maverick squadron of Americans and Russians on a secret mission to Iran.

During the stunt, Riggs flew a 1973 Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros, a Czechoslovakian jet trainer that became popular in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.

He was accompanied by another L-39 and a propeller plane that pulled a banner for the movie. The flight occurred about 1 p.m. while hundreds of people were on the beach and pier.

White alleged that Riggs disregarded federal aviation regulations by flying too low along the shoreline and too close to the pier at speeds of almost 300 mph. He further asserted that Riggs performed illegal aerobatics and did not have permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to perform an aerial display.

According to the charges, the jet raced along the shore at less than 100 feet, although the FAA requirement is 1,000 feet over populated areas. Witnesses said it was so low it created a wake on the ocean and the lifeguard in Tower 26 said she could feel the heat of engine exhaust.

Just before the plane would have hit the pier, a videotape of the flight shows the L-39 going into a steep spiraling climb over the landmark, smoke streaming from the tail as if in an air show. The prosecution claims the maneuver was below 1,500 feet, the FAA minimum altitude for aerobatics.

Defense attorney John Duran countered that the aerial display was a carefully choreographed event flown by a skilled pilot who maintained the required altitudes and distances between his plane, the beach, the pier and those on the ground.

Citing court testimony, Duran asserted that some witnesses could not say if Riggs’ plane or the other L-39 made the high-speed passes. A safety expert retained by the defense also testified that the flight did not endanger the public because the plane was in good condition and was flown by a pilot certified for L-39s.