The Incredible Story of David Riggs
It made international news: David Riggs’ body was discovered on Friday by a search and rescue team diving a lake in northeastern China after a Lancair 320, carrying the pilot and his translator, struck the surface and crashed. David Riggs, notorious stunt pilot who lost his pilot’s license twice, had been in the news – and on this blog – over the past few years for his escapades.
He’s been in the news before, of course. I first noticed the name in 2008 when he buzzed the Santa Monica pier in a Czechoslovakian L-39.
Two high-performance military jets departed Van Nuys airport in California as a formation flight to gather footage for a film in production called Kerosene Cowboys. The plan was for the jets to do four passes off of the coast of the Santa Monica pier, west of a banner tow aircraft towing a banner for the film. The first passes went as planned and then David Riggs broke away and flew low over the beach area for multiple passes in excess of 250 knots (two of the passes were below 500 feet) and then pulled into a steep climb just before the pier.
He explained that he did the fly-by’s to promote his new movie; there was a meeting including “film market buyers and producers” at the Loew’s Beach Hotel overlooking the pier. Dave Riggs was the CEO of Afterburner Films, Inc.
He had his private pilot certificate revoked but a few months after the sentence, he obtained a Canadian pilot’s license.
If you think it looks vaguely familiar, that might be because you’ve seen the viral YouTube video about a frightening Close Call with Terrain:
Is it the same plane in the video?
Rigg’s revocation turned into a suspension and his US private pilot’s license was restored after 210 days.
He became involved with a business called Mach One Aviation and Incredible Adventures which offered 45 minutes filmed flights in old military training jets with his business partner, Doug Gillis.
On the 18th of May, a group of eight people arrived at Boulder City, Nevada. They’d paid for a 45-minute filmed “adventure flight”. Two L-39s (one of which was Riggs’ plane, although it’s not clear to me whether Riggs was flying it) were taking the passengers out one at a time. They had just departed for the third tour of the day, when Gillis’ L-39 failed for unknown reasons. The L-39 crashed just after take-off from Boulder City Airport, killing Gillis, who was the pilot, and the paying passenger in the rear seat. The final report has not yet been released but the FAA stated unequivocably that at the time of the crash, the company was illegally selling rides in the L-39. Riggs’ pilot license was revoked again as a result of this.
Gillis, Riggs’ partner and the pilot of the doomed L-39, had already had his ATPC revoked three years previous for signing a fraudulent Flight Review Endorsement to a pilot involved in a fatal L-29 crash in 2009.
Shortly after the Boulder crash, Riggs returned to Canada to try to get a commercial license. In 2013, he de-registered his yellow Lancair 360, N360DR, in the US and registered it in Canada.
Kristy Graham, the author of Aviation Criminal | The True Story, contacted Transport Canada in September 2013 and confirmed that Riggs application for a commercial license was not granted as his FAA certificate had been suspended.
Nevertheless, he took his aircraft to China to fly in the Shenyang Airshow.
While there, he took off “in rainy conditions” from Shenyang Faku General Aviation Base. He was apparently practising making his Lancair graze the surface to produce a skiing effect. Around 1pm local time, some part of the aircraft caught the water and it crashed into Caihu Lake.
David G. Riggs was reportedly flying a Lancair 320, a high-performance single-engine aircraft made from a kit, when he struck the surface of a lake outside Shenyang, where he was planning to perform in an airshow. Aboard was an 18-year-old woman serving as his translator, who was killed, according to the Xinhua News Agency.
Witnesses said Riggs was practising 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.
His passenger, a 19-year-old translator, was pulled from the water but died later that day.
Talented musician Justina Zhang, 19, was working as a Chinese translator for Hollywood stunt pilot David Riggs when their aircraft crashed into Caihu Lake in north-east China during a trial flight at around 1pm on Tuesday last week.
His body was recovered three days later and cremated over the weekend.
I watch air shows with glee but a stunt pilot, more than any other pilot, has to be able to do a risk-vs-reward assessment and ensure that he is keeping himself and others safe. Taking a passenger on a trial flight for an air show routine seems in itself a dreadfully poor decision. But looking at his history, it really does feel like it was only a matter of time before he crashed an aircraft and it was probably inevitable that he would take someone with him.