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Investigators: Airplane striking pelican caused deadly crash in Deer Park in 2018

The deadly crash of a single-engine plane on an instructional flight near Deer Park in July 2018 occurred after the aircraft struck a pelican, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report released earlier this month.

The crash killed the pilot, 25-year-old JooChan “Austen” Lee, a student at Moody Bible Institute who was making his first test flight, according to records released by investigators. Also killed was the instructional pilot, Diego Senn, and fellow student Andrew Trouten, both 30. The aircraft, a Cessna 172, went down in a field about 20 miles northwest of Felts Field, where it left on a clear summer morning more than two years ago.

The NTSB report was released in the midst of an ongoing wrongful death lawsuit filed by Lee’s widow against Moody, the Chicago-based ministry school where Lee was a student learning to fly for missionary work. That lawsuit alleges negligence in maintaining the Cessna and Senn’s inability to take control and make an emergency landing during the crash.

Charles Herrmann, the attorney representing Lee’s widow, said Tuesday the lawsuit will continue. Bird strikes have become increasingly common, and Moody had a duty to making safety preparations for such an event, Herrmann said.

“It is foreseeable, is my point, and with that you either need to effectively prepare for it or avoid it,” Herrmann said. One of those preparations could be strengthening the windshield of the aircraft to protect against damage caused by bird strikes, he suggested.

Christopher Raistrick, an attorney for the Bible institute, said in an email Wednesday he could not comment on pending litigation. An email message to the school’s public relations office on Tuesday was not returned.

Multiple witnesses to the crash told investigators that they heard a sputtering and watched the plane quickly descend prior to the crash. Investigators at the scene found a plume of feathers near the wreckage, and pieces of the damaged windscreen were shipped to the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab in Washington, D.C., where microscopic samples of feathers consistent with the American white pelican were found, according to the report prepared by Zoe Keliher, the lead NTSB investigator.

A collision with the bird caused “a rapid descent that the flight instructor was unable to recover from before the airplane exceeded the manufacturer’s recommended maneuvering speed,” Keliher wrote in her report. Such speeds, approaching 135 mph according to instrument reports, would have caused the plane to break-up in midair and crash, she concluded.

Observers had reported American white pelicans at Eloika and Calispell lakes near the scene of the crash in the weeks leading up to and after the crash July 13, according to an online database of sightings referred to by investigators. Pelicans’ migratory pattern includes all of Eastern Washington and North Idaho.

The Federal Aviation Administration warned in a report released the year of the crash that bird strikes were becoming more common in the United States and beyond. A flock of American white pelicans is believed to have caused a March 2008 crash near an Oklahoma City airport that killed all five men aboard. Just nine months later, a commercial flight was forced to make an emergency water landing in New York City after striking what was believed to be a flock of Canada geese. The incident came to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

Lee’s widow was six months pregnant with their first child when the crash occurred, according to court records. A missionary child from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Lee came to the United States in 2015 and transferred to Moody to become a pilot, according to his obituary.

Senn had a child due in December 2018, according to his obituary, to add to his family that included three other children. He had received stall and spin recovery training and had more than 600 hours of experience in the air as an instructor, according to investigative records.

Trouten was a U.S. Navy veteran and Coeur d’Alene native who was also on his first day of flight training when the place crashed. He was a certified air mechanic through studies at Moody.

He was married and had a young daughter, according to his obituary.

A jury trial in the wrongful death lawsuit that had been scheduled for October 2021 was pushed back to 2022 at the request of attorneys due to the pandemic. A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled to take place in Spokane in February.

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