News


Lawsuits settled, but no changes at Palo Alto Airport

Following 2010 plane crash, residents have rebuilt homes

It's been five years since a Cessna piloted by Tesla Motors employee Douglas Bourn crashed into an East Palo Alto neighborhood, and it has taken nearly that long for all of the litigation to resolve against Bourn's estate and Tesla Motors. In that time, East Palo Alto families have tried to rebuild their lives and their homes, and relatives of the two plane passengers killed, Brian Finn and Andrew Ingram, have received some compensation for their loved ones' deaths.

Settlements and community fundraising have brought some measure of closure to people's lives. But steps have yet to be taken to ensure that such a crash by pilots flying out of Palo Alto Municipal Airport never happens again.

Court records show that the victims of the Feb. 17, 2010, disaster received compensation, but the settlement terms are not known.

Paula and Barbara Ingram, Andrew Ingram's parents, filed suit in San Mateo County Superior Court against Bourn and his company, Air Unique, on Aug. 17, 2010, for unspecified damages. Their suit was settled in February 2013 for an undisclosed sum.

Finn's wife, Sherina Yuk Chan, and their young child, Erin Silei Finn, filed suit against Air Unique on Jan. 10, 2011. That suit settled in December 2012, according to court documents.

Lisa Jones, whose home was completely destroyed after the plane struck the roof and started a fire, struggled with homelessness and lived with friends after she lost her daycare business that she operated out of the house. She and six family members filed suit against Bourn's estate on Nov. 22, 2010, and settled on Aug. 12, 2013, for an undisclosed sum, but the settlement was not adequate to rebuild her home, she later said.

Atherton residents stepped in to raise money to rebuild Jones' home with the help of the nonprofit Rebuilding Together. Jones returned to her home in September, the last victim to return to the neighborhood.

Beech Street residents Ervin and Pinkie Hudleton, whose vehicle and carport were destroyed by parts of the disintegrating plane, filed a lawsuit on Feb. 16, 2012, against Bourn, Air Unique, Tesla, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, Palo Alto Airport and Pacific Gas & Electric. Their litigation settled in August 2012.

Five family members living at the home of Jose Cortes-Herrera, whose house, belongings and vehicles were damaged by fire from the crash and explosion, filed suit in San Mateo County in 2010 against Air Unique, Tesla Motors and Bourn's estate. Most of the victims settled in December 2013, but two family members disputed the sum and were awarded $10,000 each on Aug. 4, 2014, according to court documents.

As memories fade and lives move on, Palo Alto Airport and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which determines flight paths and rules for airports and aircraft, continue to point to pilot error as the reason for the crash. National Transportation Safety Board investigators did determine that Bourn took off in heavy fog conditions and did not obey the approved flight route, which instructed him to bank to the right over the San Francisco Bay. For an unknown reason, Bourn banked left after takeoff and at a lower elevation, striking a utility tower before crashing into the Beech Street homes.

"Once flight clearance has been obtained, no pilot may deviate from that clearance unless an amended clearance is obtained, an emergency exists, or the deviation is in response to a traffic alert and collision avoidance system resolution advisory," FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said in an email this week.

The FAA doesn't close airports due to weather conditions, but an airport could choose to close a runway if it is damaged or if an aircraft is disabled on the runway. But flying in bad weather is a pilot's risk, Gregor said.

The FAA has not had any discussions with East Palo Alto or Palo Alto officials regarding a change in procedures or flight patterns, Gregor said.

Palo Alto City Manager James Keene said that following the plane crash city officials had extensive conversations with East Palo Alto, primarily around emergency response, communication and coordination.

"At that time, the airport was a county operation. Now that the city has taken over the airport, we expect working together with our neighbors regarding the airport -- operations and planning -- will be the standard," he said.

City Council member Pat Burt, who was mayor in 2010 when the crash occurred, said the city's takeover of the airport could involve stronger education programs for pilots.

Ralph Britton, Palo Alto Airport Association president, said the association and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association held a seminar for pilots at Cubberley Auditorium on Sept. 20, 2010, to discuss safety operating procedures and the risks associated with low-visibility departures.

"The Palo Alto Airport Association regularly reminds pilots to be mindful of East Palo Alto's proximity to the airport and follow procedures which will minimize noise impact to the community. The memory of this tragedy continues to weigh heavily on the airport community," he added.

East Palo Alto Interim Manager Carlos Martinez, City Councilman Ruben Abrica and former mayor David Woods, who were involved in the city at the time of the crash, did not return requests for comment.

Related content:

Lawsuit settled, plane crash victim looks to rebuild (July 2013)

Lawsuits settled in East Palo Alto plane crash

Pilot error caused East Palo Alto plane crash (November 2011)

East Palo Alto plane crash: One year later (February 2011)

Three Tesla employees die in plane crash (February 2010)

Comments

9 people like this
Posted by Jerry
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 13, 2015 at 10:55 am

While it has been slow, it's good to hear that many of the people whose lives were devastated by this terrible accident are getting back toward normal.


5 people like this
Posted by Sue
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 13, 2015 at 10:59 am

This was a terrible accident.
I am glad that the city has taken over the airport so we can have more control over things.


11 people like this
Posted by P
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 13, 2015 at 11:17 am

The San Mateo County Airport Land Use Commission should develop a Comprehensive Land Use Plan for that area. Land use decisions near the airport in Palo Alto are reviewed by the Santa Clara County Airport Land Use Commission to make sure they don't unnecessarily endanger the public. Apparently nobody reviewed land use in East Palo Alto or they may have noticed that putting houses right off the end of the runway might not have been a great idea. That's why state law established these commissions.


8 people like this
Posted by Airport guy
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 13, 2015 at 1:50 pm

"The memory of this tragedy continues to weigh heavily on the airport community"

Absolutely. It's now clear to all pilots that not only do we turn away from East Palo Alto after takeoff and act as responsible and courteous neighbors, but also why we are doing that.


8 people like this
Posted by Jetman
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 13, 2015 at 4:08 pm

Sue of Greenmeadow,

Unfortunately very shortly after taking control of the airport from Santa Clara County, Palo Alto accepted an Airport Improvement Program grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The terms of the AIP grant gave the FAA effective control of the airport for the next 20-30 years, so unfortunately there is very little Palo Alto can do to change airport procedures or regulations.

While all licensed drivers are required to carry casualty insurance, an FAA pilots license does not require general aviation pilots to carry insurance.


2 people like this
Posted by what's ahead
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 13, 2015 at 4:55 pm

This was terrible and a seminar about safety in 2010 sounds like an eternity ago.

There was a posting about the airport outsourcing may functions, what does this mean?




10 people like this
Posted by IndieRhythm
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 13, 2015 at 5:35 pm

This story was/is so incredibly sad and it still feels like yesterday that it happened. I’m sure that has to be the case for the families involved. I so appreciate this article to get an update. The changes the FAA is making in the airspace over this area is only making this type of thing a much greater concern to me. Flights in and out of SFO and SJC are flying lower and closer together, merging right over Palo Alto, and air traffic at the Palo Alto airport also appears to be increasing.

In following the local groups on the mid-peninsula regarding complaints about airplane noise (and safety), I know that the people who live very near the San Carlos airport or who are in their flight paths have experienced significant distress since SurfAir began operating. Other pilots who have flown in and out of San Carlos for 20+ years have commented that if these planes needed to make an emergency landing anywhere near the airport, they do not have much wiggle room because of the low elevations they fly at. They would have to land on a school play yard or something similar. Now that Palo Alto airport is under FAA control, with very little input over procedures, flight paths, etc. I think we have a great deal to be concerned about related to both safety and noise.


6 people like this
Posted by Not made whole
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 13, 2015 at 6:24 pm


It really is a great shame that the people in EPA who were hurt by a flight leaving from our airport apparently had to go through such a legal nightmare before receiving even some compensation. Much of their lives was destroyed, but Palo Alto did not step up to the plate to make sure that these peoples' lives were made whole. If it's our airport, we are ultimately responsible. As usual, those with the deeper pockets get to infringe the property of others, courtesy of our legal system. We should set the barrier higher for us, and make it less difficult for those EPA citizens, who were hurt, to get full justice and redemption from this awful accident.


6 people like this
Posted by Memories
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 13, 2015 at 10:54 pm

Why do we feel it's okay to constantly refer to East Palo Alto as EPA? It's disrespectful, even if not consciously so, and should stop. Otherwise, let's refer to our city as PA and Menlo Park as MP. It's not difficult to type one more short word, so let's please try to do so.

The residents of East Palo Alto are much more important than the airport. Comments that houses shouldn't have been built in that neighborhood are ridiculous. If necessary for safety, close the airport.


8 people like this
Posted by memsman
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 14, 2015 at 8:47 am

Thanks to Sue for another wonderful article. I am also concerned that PA, although now owner, does not have complete control of the airport given the involvement with FAA grants. We need a story to expose the details of this arrangement. There is already too much noise due to low flying flights from the airport, and most are just training flights of students going around in circles. There are also helicopter schools added to the mix.


3 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 14, 2015 at 6:23 pm


The pathetic push towards unrelenting positivity is positively revolting.

It is not good to know that the lives of the people who were involved in
this needless accident 5 years ago are getting back to normal, because
that just ignores what happened to them and to the whole city and area.

How would you like your life turned completely upside down for
5 years, and you can most likely bet that this does not include the
opportunity cost of what those people's lives would have been
like had they not had to fight without their houses or stability
of lifestyle for just partial justice?

I've said for years, and every step of the way events have proven,
that this airport, its pilots, its planes and those who support it take
from this town and give nothing back to the area except to an elite
group of people who do not fulfill their obligations to fellow residents
of the City and area. Not an all around good deal.

And with all this .... the whole area was just very lucky it was not
much much worse.

I reject the words of cheer that are meant to cover up and deny
what really happened here. Yes, it happened to just a few people,
and that is how it is so well hidden for 5 years ... but it could have
happened to any of us, and it could been much worse.

We do not need an airport so close to the City, and we especially
do not need to the noise, and the pollution ( i.e. the lead fumes
that we are being subjected to ) and nothing is being measured,
on purpose because that is the way responsibility is ignored
and action is forgotten.


3 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 14, 2015 at 6:34 pm

Airport guy a resident of Charleston Meadows
>> It's now clear to all pilots that not only do we turn away from East Palo Alto after takeoff and act as responsible and courteous neighbors, but also why we are doing that.

Uh, have you ever drive out to the Baylands and walked out past the Interpretive Center out to the end of the air airstrip and watch planes take off, or are you just "assuming" for the benefit of the hopeful readers here?

Not all planes do turn away from East Palo Alto, and according to this there is no real reason they should other than some of them might want to be responsible flyers. The way institutions are run these days though cowboy behavior is almost rewarded. There should have been some kind of rule - with teeth - to keep pilots on a safer course. That is a failure, as was the way these people were treated.

Did anyone have to reimburse the City or state for the damage the electrical system or to residents for having to go without electricity? It's clear that the present risk management plans are pathetic, and the people evaluating them and managing the airport are incompetent.


4 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 15, 2015 at 6:35 am

More and more small planes are bussing lower and lower(and earlier and earlier) over Palo Alto neighborhoods, so I'm afraid that nothing has changed. The pilots know that even if caught, they will not be punished or disciplined. Palo Alto has no say over flying procedures, and I expect this mess to get increasingly worse.


8 people like this
Posted by On the ground
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 15, 2015 at 5:11 pm

Is it a coincidence that the extension of a line drawn from the end of the runway to the crash site passes almost directly over the home of Brian Finn, one of the passengers? It should have been just another "terrorizing the local populace" (that's pilot speak). With the fog hiding the perpetrators, who would ever know who done it, and who cares about groundlings' gripes anyway?

GPS can guide a plane right over a designated target in zero visibility, but apparently it can't spot obstacles like power lines. So why not just cut out the cowboy stuff over there?


2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 15, 2015 at 5:37 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The visibility at the time of the crash was so low that nothing could be seen once the plane left the ground - no reason to sightsee when you can't see. The fog was so dense that the fire engines that responded had difficulty even seeing the street corners.

"Weather conditions reported five minutes prior to the accident were wind variable at 5 knots, visibility 1/8th mile, fog, and vertical visibility of 100 feet agl. Weather conditions recorded by the ATCT 11 minutes after the time of the accident were visibility 1/16th mile, fog, and a vertical visibility of 100 feet agl."

Having taken off in similar conditions at PAO (with a certified FAA Flight Examiner in the right seat) I can guarantee that the pilot would have ONLY been looking at his instruments.


1 person likes this
Posted by Jetman
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 15, 2015 at 6:32 pm

Peter,

Maybe they were foolishly hopping to see Mr Finn's home. It would not have been the only foolish thing they did that day.


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 15, 2015 at 6:36 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Jetman - there is no evidence to support your allegation. Within the pilot community the Cessna 310 pilot was known to be experienced, well qualified and a stickler for flying by the book.


3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 15, 2015 at 6:40 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

It is very telling that this Forum not only allows but encourages baseless attacks on other people by its policies allowing anonymous unregistered postings and then will not delete such attacks. Probably because such attacks increase the clicks and hence the Weekly's ad rates.


6 people like this
Posted by Jetman
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 15, 2015 at 7:12 pm

Peter,

There is no evidence to support your allegation either. You seem to be jumping into this tragedy to implant a fictional narrative. Nobody, including you, knows what was happening in the cockpit of this aircraft.


2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 15, 2015 at 7:26 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"There is no evidence to support your allegation either."

On the contrary, my hypothesis (NOT an allegation) is based on known meteorological conditions, my personal qualifications (IFR rated pilot) and experience (more than a 1000 takeoffs from Palo Alto Airport) and contacts within the local pilot community. None of these nor the NTSB report support your and On the Ground's sightseeing allegations.

However nobody knows if you or On the Ground have any relevant qualifications or if you are criminals - or even who you are. But you both felt very free to jump into this tragedy to implant fictional narratives -"Maybe they were foolishly hopping to see Mr Finn's home" and "Is it a coincidence that the extension of a line drawn from the end of the runway to the crash site passes almost directly over the home of Brian Finn, one of the passengers?"


5 people like this
Posted by what's ahead
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 15, 2015 at 7:50 pm

"flying in bad weather is a pilot's risk, Gregor said."

This comment is very concerning for me.

Is it really the pilot's risk to take on behalf of so many potential victims if the pilot makes a bad choice?

I don't understand why there aren't clear and enforceable rules about these type choices or why nothing has changed.



4 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 15, 2015 at 7:59 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

I have long been on record as urging the FAA and PAO to change the IFR departure from Runway 31 (which takes the plane North towards East Palo Alto) to Runway 13 (which goes over the dump/park South of the airport) in the no wind conditions which almost always accompany fog at PAO.

I have also long been on record as urging the FAA and PAO to eliminate all traffic on the 101 side of the airport thereby keeping this traffic over the airport and the Bay rather than over East Palo Alto and Palo Alto.

If you want to reduce the risks at PAO then you should urge your elected officials to push for these changes.


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 16, 2015 at 10:12 am

@Peter >> "eliminate all traffic on the 101 side of the airport"

Without getting too technical, what's your proposed approach for general aviation from the coast? Currently I hear reporting over SLAC or thereabouts, then clearance for left traffic to runway 31. Noise abatement recommends staying above 1500 feet until crossing 101 somewhere between University and Embarcadero. Then it's entry into left downwind at pattern altitude 1000 feet. This seems less problematic than crossing the airfield and merging into right traffic.

Departures toward the coast generally proceed to the Dumbarton auto bridge before turning left, above 1500 feet (but staying below 2500 until across El Camino). Rarely I've see a right 270 departure, usually a high-performance or aerobatic plane.

Regarding the accident, I can't help but wonder whether the two passengers had doubts about launching into the soup. I shudder to think how many of my own past decisions could have ended badly (referring to travel or recreation not related to flying).


13 people like this
Posted by Groundling
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 16, 2015 at 10:24 am

Thanks to Sue D. at the Weekly, for following up on the outcomes of this sad day for our neighbors in EPA.

Am I just naive, or shouldn't the FAA have the power and the responsibility to shut down an airport for all but serious emergency traffic under circumstances that require a GA pilot to land and take off purely under instrument control? The pilots can risk their own lives if in the middle of a desert or uninhabited region, but next to homes??? And why shouldn't the pilot's estate have paid for all damages if his decision to flaunt the "recommended" take off plan caused the terror, damage, and loss of life that day??

This idea that the FAA is supporting safety in aviation is a joke. What they really want is free reign for all the cowboys up there. They want the aviation industry to be profitable, and grow, even though it is an unsustainable practice ecologically. Then they want no responsibility for the disasters that ensue. Take the crash in Hayward yesterday. Why are experimental planes taking off in densely inhabited areas? How many of those aircraft do we have at PAO? Pilots ARE fallible and subjective, and that's why there should be super tight controls on them.

Accidents are rare, thankfully, but everyday the quality of life down here is severely impacted by the battering sound of combustion engines overhead that inflict horrendous noise over swaths of PA and EPA, the MP WIllows, and other communities. Even when they fly at or above the FAA "regulation" altitude of 1000' (which is often NOT the case) they are way too loud down here. Pilots are oblivious to the racket they make, as they wear cockpit headphones. Nice for them. One well protected person up there vs. thousands suffering down below. Why are there no requirements for quieter planes? Why are they allowed to burn leaded fuel, still? Why when we report an offensive flight do we get no assurance that the pilot will be fined? Because it's the Wild West up there, a a few very privileged folks like to keep it that way. They are used to looking down on the rest of the population.

The odds of a student pilot or risk-taking hobbyist pilots buzzing in and out of PAO causing another avoidable loss of life and property are only improved by this "settlement". It is a victory for those who want to beef up business at PAO, and a sad day for the residents who live anywhere near these operations (most of PA and EPA).


11 people like this
Posted by On The Ground
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 16, 2015 at 11:46 am

"no reason to sightsee when you can't see."

It's the roar of those twin air-cooleds and props at full power from a few dozen feet altitude. Impresses the local populace. Whooee!

Speaking of anonymity, how about those cowboys hiding in their noisy aluminum birds up there over our houses, Mr Carpenter?

Come on over and enjoy the show from the ground, Mr Carpenter. Bring your own Xanax.


2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 16, 2015 at 12:22 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Without getting too technical, what's your proposed approach for general aviation from the coast? Currently I hear reporting over SLAC or thereabouts, then clearance for left traffic to runway 31"

I would propose being cleared for right traffic on runway 13 by passing overhead the airport midfield at or above 800 ft when coming from SLAC or other points West of 101. Ironically crossing the airport at midfield is the safest place to be as runway departing and arriving aircraft are below you. Entering the right downwind at midfield also give you very good observability for other traffic already on the right downwind leg.


4 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 16, 2015 at 12:44 pm

By the way, the City of Palo Alto was responsible for allowing IFR to be used by pilots back in 1984. Presumably, the City can rescind that decision.

The claim that flying in bad weather is the pilot's responsibility seems to run into a brick wall when the pilot isn't carrying much liability insurance, and he crashes his plane, kills a number of people, and destroys homes and personal property on the ground.

It's hard not to see the owner/operator of the airport now responsibile for bad decisions by irresponsible, or unlucky, pilots. The City of Palo Alto should seriously rethink the IFR permission. The fact that some pilots who are not even Palo Alto residents might be inconvinenced for a few hours can hardly be seen as in anyway wrong compared to the damage that this now-dead pilot imposed on this community because of what can only be seen as a simple directional error.

There are easily 250,000 people living within a 10-mile radius of this airport. The safety of us all is at stake--not just the flying "rights" of a handful of 1%ers.

The fact that the Council has never gotten very interested in the settlement of this crash makes it clear how they will act when there next crash happens!

@SUE--There is little evidence that the City of Palo Alto will exert much control over the airport. The FAA has the upper hand where important issues are involved. The City Council has never shown any understanding of anything technical, such as the Utility, or now, this poorly-sited airport. It's pretty clear that this, and future, Councils will not represent the general public's safety, and will simple dance to the tune of the pilots, who will constantly claim that they "self police themselves", and that the public has an obligation to fund the airport--not the pilots.

The voters need to start making this airport an on-going campaign issue. It's only a matter of time before more people are killed there.


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 16, 2015 at 2:44 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 16, 2015 at 3:13 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 16, 2015 at 3:50 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The Editors are now removing any comment that provides either factual information or an opposing view. Palo Alto Political Correctness now reigns.


2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 16, 2015 at 4:03 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"By the way, the City of Palo Alto was responsible for allowing IFR to be used by pilots back in 1984. Presumably, the City can rescind that decision."

This factually incorrect. A number of interested parties requested that the FAA establish an IFR approach for PAO and the FAA did so. The City of Palo Alto has NO control over the existence of this approach. Prior to the establishment of the PAO IFR approach pilots would request an instrument approach to Moffat and then, once they could see PAO, would transfer to a contact approach - a significantly more problematic procedure.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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