A woman is suing the Moody Bible Institute over a plane crash that killed her husband and two other men, alleging the Chicago-based evangelical college failed to maintain the aircraft before it lost power and plummeted into a field near Deer Park.
A federal investigator assigned to the crash, however, said officials have found no evidence of engine failure, as the lawsuit suggests.
The plane, a single-engine Cessna 172, broke apart in midair on the clear morning of July 13, 2018, killing all three occupants, including 24-year-old Moody student Joochan “Austen” Lee, who was piloting an aircraft for the first time. The others were Moody flight instructor Diego Senn and fellow student Andrew Trouten, both 30.
They had taken off from Felts Field, where Moody runs an aviation school training pilots for missionary work. Both wings came off the plane as it nosedived into a field along Bittrich-Antler Road, about 15 miles from the airport. It reportedly had been traveling at normal speeds.
Yuki Lee’s lawsuit was filed last week in Spokane County Superior Court and seeks an unspecified amount in damages. Her Seattle-based lawyers, Charles Herrmann and Anthony Marsh, allege that Moody “negligently failed to service, maintain and upgrade the plane according to the manufacturer’s instructions” and Federal Aviation Administration directives.
They also allege that Senn, who sat beside Joochan Lee in the cockpit, failed to restart the engine and glide the plane to a safe landing. It includes excerpts from step-by-step pilot manuals that Senn allegedly should have followed. The lawsuit also notes that Senn had become a certified flight instructor six months before the crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board has not released a final report on the crash. A three-page preliminary report, released two weeks after the incident, describes the path of the plane and the dimensions of the debris field. It does not mention any mechanical or structural failure or describe the actions of anyone inside the plane.
Shortly after the crash, witnesses told The Spokesman-Review they had heard the plane’s engine rev and sputter before impact. But Zoe Keliher, the NTSB investigator assigned to the crash, said Wednesday she has found “no evidence of mechanical malfunction or failure that would have precluded normal operation.”
Keliher said she has collected all the information she can about the incident. The final report, which she hopes to complete in November, will include the official cause of the crash.
Lee’s attorneys did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday. The lawsuit notes that “precise acts of negligence” are unknown to them.
“However,” it states, “an accident of this type obviously does not normally occur without negligence; the aircraft was undeniably under Moody’s exclusive control for inspection, maintenance and upgrades prior to the flight and its operation during the flight … and the accident was not caused by any voluntary action or contribution on Joochan’s part.”
Moody spokesman Brian Regnerus said he couldn’t discuss the allegations in the lawsuit.
“The Moody Aviation family has been caring for Joo Chan Lee’s family and the other families following the July 2018 accident,” Regnerus said in an email. “We will continue to care for them and keep them in our prayers as they are beloved members of our Moody family. We are aware of the lawsuit that was recently filed, however, it is our policy to not comment on pending litigation.”
Moody’s flight school is based at Felts Field but often uses Deer Park Airport for training because it has long runways and no radio tower for students to worry about.
For 24 years, Moody also operated a Bible college a few blocks north of Gonzaga University. It closed that branch due to declining enrollment in 2017 and has since been replaced by another bible college, Great Northern University.
According to a Moody newsletter about the crash victims, Joochan Lee was born in South Korea but raised in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where his parents were missionaries. Wanting to become a missionary pilot, he enrolled at Moody and served as an associate pastor at a Korean church in Pullman, where he met his wife.
“I packed my bags and flew in faith believing that God would be in control,” he said, according to the newsletter.
The couple learned they would become parents shortly before the crash. According to the lawsuit, their daughter is now 6 months old.
Senn, who was born in Switzerland but raised in Brazil, was expecting his fourth child at the time of the crash. According to a GoFundMe.com page that raised money for his family, his wife gave birth to “a very healthy and beautiful baby girl” in December.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.