Megan Bishop was driving with her 4-year-old son Taylor on a residential road next to the North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines one afternoon last March when a single-engine airplane suddenly dropped out of the sky soon after takeoff and broadsided her SUV. The crash killed the two men who were aboard, both of them licensed pilots. Bishop escaped her vehicle with a severe facial laceration, broken ribs, and a cracked spine. But her son became trapped in the wreckage. He was pulled out by first responders and taken to Memorial Regional Hospital, where he died less than an hour after the accident.
More than four months have passed, but the grieving mother “constantly lives with violent images of Taylor Bishop’s traumatic death.” She has described her memory of the day as “living in a nightmare.” Last month she filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in Broward County court against the pilots' estates and a group of defendants who had allegedly inspected or serviced the plane, a Beech Bonanza aircraft, which documents obtained by New Times reveal had been purchased from an owner in South Africa in late 2020.
The lawsuit claims the plane should have been grounded in light of mechanical problems it exhibited before the March 15 flight. The case is also prompting the larger question as to whether there ought to be more oversight in the private aircraft-resale industry.
"The general-aviation market space — sometimes it has a tendency of becoming the Wild, Wild West," says a Broward County pilot who works at the North Perry Airport and spoke to New Times on the condition that his name not be published, for fear of repercussions on his aviation business.
"People hide behind certifications, and the minute that an airplane is handed over to the eventual end user, you're done and it's hands-off," the pilot says. "It's like a used-car dealership. Get an airplane, patch it up, and resell it."
A lack of oversight of general-aviation aircraft maintenance and assembly is accompanied by a disproportionately high rate of crashes among private planes versus commercial airliners: The fatal-accident rate for general aviation has hovered around 1 per 100,000 flight hours in recent years, while commercial airliners have racked up millions of flight hours without a fatal incident.
As for the Beech Bonanza, the unnamed North Perry pilot says it was shipped from South Africa and reassembled upon arrival in South Florida. Though the plane underwent an airworthiness certification process in order to fly in the United States, he believes regulators need to scrutinize the private aircraft-resale industry more closely, saying that it's not uncommon for plane buildouts and maintenance to be rushed when an aircraft is going up for sale.
Documents obtained by New Times show that the Beech Bonanza plane went through its airworthiness certification process only a few weeks before the crash. The mandatory process, which involved inspections and a review of the plane's maintenance history, concluded on March 6, nine days before the accident.
The National Transportation Safety Board, whose investigation into the crash is still underway, released a preliminary report noting that the Beech Bonanza's engine was backfiring on March 15 during the preflight runup, a procedure pilots run through to ensure all is right with their engines before takeoff. One witness said the engine was "sputtering" on the taxiway.
"He heard cycling of the propeller 'a few times' and the engine backfired when power was increased during each sequence," the NTSB report states.
Bishop's attorney, Nicole Martell of DiPietro Partners, claims that because the plane was showing signs of engine trouble at the airport on March 15, it should never have been allowed to take off. The attorney suspects mechanical problems with the plane were already evident six days before the crash — when, she says, a post-certification flight was quickly terminated.
Pilot Yaacov Nahom, whose company FL Eagle Aviation owned the plane (along with several others), died in the crash alongside Grant Hustad, Jr., also a registered pilot. Nahom was in the primary pilot's seat while Hustad was in the first officer's seat to Nahom's right, according to the court records. The unnamed North Perry pilot says Nahom was in the business of buying and reselling planes, and that the team of mechanics who worked for him was known at the airport as a "Band-Aid crew" for their stock-in-trade: quickly patching up aircraft for resale.
FAA records show that both Nahom and Hustad were experienced pilots. Hustad, 71, had a commercial pilot license that was issued in 2012; Nahom, 63, was registered as a private pilot; his license dated back to 2017. In the aftermath of the crash, a Minnesota publisher who'd flown with Hustad told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Hustad was an “extremely careful pilot."
Reached on the phone by New Times, Bivens explained that his work on the aircraft was procedural, largely limited to a conformity inspection to ensure the aircraft met "type-design" — meaning, for example, that the plane was equipped with the proper propeller and parts. Ensuring the integrity of its mechanical aspects was not his responsibility, he said.
New Times could not reach Coulton or Mente through employers listed on their professional profiles. Coulton also did not respond to a request for comment via a social-media account he maintains. The two are listed in FAA documents as technicians who worked on the plane.
Orlando-based pilot and attorney Guy Haggard tells New Times the investigation into the crash is in its early stages and could take more than a year to be completed. He cautions that the engine backfiring on the taxiway was not necessarily an indication of imminent disaster.
"Sometimes when you test the magnetos, you can get an engine backfire or a rough engine because there is carbon buildup on the spark plugs," explained Haggard, who is not involved in the lawsuit or the NTSB inquiry.
Haggard added that NTSB investigators will likely be looking into the March 9 flight records to see what, if any, mechanical problems surfaced that day.
In a separate court case, Endurance Assurance, Nahom's insurer, contends it has no obligation to cover Bishop's claim over the accident because the Beech Bonanza was not one of the planes listed in Nahom's insurance policy, which offers $1 million in liability coverage, with a $100,000 limit for each passenger.
According to the Dallas Business Journal, Florida has no general law that requires private aircraft operators to maintain liability insurance.
The case is pending in the Southern District of Florida.
"This is an unimaginable tragedy. Ms. Bishop, with the support of her family, has taken time to focus on her healing and treasure Taylor's memory," says Martell, Bishop's attorney. "He was a sweet, funny, and smart boy. And he had an incredible family behind him."