Pilot who buzzed Santa Monica Pier under investigation

Federal authorities are investigating whether a local pilot who lost his flight privileges for buzzing the Santa Monica Pier in 2008 illegally sold rides to the public in his Soviet-era military jet.

The investigation of David G. Riggs stems from an accident in Nevada on May 18 in which a Czech-built L-39 Albatros crashed in the desert, killing a veteran pilot and a passenger who had purchased a ride.

Authorities said Riggs was flying with a passenger in his own Aero Vodochody L-39 next to the ill-fated plane shortly before it crashed.

Both high-performance aircraft had flown that day from Van Nuys Airport to the Boulder City Municipal Airport, where eight people who had bought flights were set to take turns riding in the two-seat planes. The jet trainers were popular in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.


Government regulations forbid carrying passengers for hire in such aircraft unless the owners have permission from the Federal Aviation Administration. The planes can be used for flight training and making feature films or television shows under certain conditions.

If federal regulations were violated, Riggs could face a suspension or another revocation of his pilot’s license. He lost his flight privileges for a year after he made several passes in his L-39 over the Santa Monica Pier on Nov. 8, 2008.

FAA officials said he streaked along the beach at extremely low altitude and then pulled up abruptly when he reached the pier, endangering people who stood below. His pilot license was reinstated after the penalty period expired.

The Boulder City crash is being investigated by the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board, which issued a preliminary accident report this week. It contains details about the crash but does not make conclusions about the cause.


“The FAA is very actively investigating this accident and the circumstances behind the aircraft operations,” Ian Gregor, an administration spokesman, said Friday.

George Erdell, a retired FAA inspector who handled the Santa Monica case, said the FAA’s Van Nuys office has had complaints for years that Riggs was operating his jet contrary to limitations of his experimental airworthiness certificate, but has done nothing until now.

Gregor defended the agency, saying the FAA aggressively investigates complaints when it receives credible allegations that someone is violating federal aviation regulations.

Killed in the Boulder City crash were Richard A. Winslow, 65, of Palm Desert and Douglas E. Gilliss, 65, of Solana Beach, a former Air Force captain and air transport pilot with years of experience flying vintage military jets.

Gilliss lost his flight certificates in connection with the crash of another Soviet-era military jet during an aerial display in Tehachapi on July 4, 2009. The city’s airport director and a former Air Force test pilot were killed.

The FAA alleged that Gilliss, who was a flight examiner at the time, falsely stated in a pilot’s log that he had checked out the ability of the airport manager to fly the jet before the crash.

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