Search continues for local pilot whose plane crashed in China

A Southern California pilot who lost his license twice for buzzing the Santa Monica Pier and illegally selling rides to the public remains missing after his small plane crashed in northeast China.

David G. Riggs was reportedly flying a Lancair 320, a high-performance single-engine aircraft made from a kit, Tuesday when he struck the surface of a lake outside Shenyang, where he was planning to perform in an airshow, organizers and Chinese state media said.

His 18-year-old translator was killed instantly, but Riggs’ body was still missing as of Wednesday afternoon local time.

Witnesses said Riggs was practicing a stunt in the rain that required him to gently touch the wheels on the water to produce a skiing effect. Apparently, the landing gear or another part of the plane caught the water.

“We are investigating the cause of the crash,” said Xu Jiuqing of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, one of the organizers of the air show.


Riggs was supposed to be performing a stunt inspired by the Tom Cruise movie “Top Gun” for the International Flight Conference & General Aviation Products Expo, which opens Friday.

Riggs’ flight took off at 1:40 p.m. local time Tuesday from the Shenyang Faku General Aviation Base.

“As soon as he took off, he turned right and the plane went straight into the lake,” Xu said on Wednesday.

Xu said that the wreckage of the aircraft had been recovered, but that as of Wednesday afternoon, Riggs’ body had not.

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 only served a few days because of overcrowding.

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 published Tuesday in China’s Business Times, 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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Demick reported from China, Weikel from Los Angeles