On the morning of July 2, 2003, a Beechcraft Baron carrying four men from Tampa swooped toward the runway at Memphis International Airport. On the ground nearby was a 50-passenger jet.
"Caution, wake turbulence," an air traffic controller warned the Baron pilot.
The controller was referring to the twin whirlwinds coming from the wings of the jet, which was two minutes ahead of the Baron. Such winds can cause smaller planes to roll over.
The pilot acknowledged the warning. But his plane did roll, and it did crash, and the pilot, a prominent neurosurgeon named David Cahill, was killed. So was a passenger, John Murphy. Two other passengers — Chip Lomel and Ed Brown — were badly hurt.
The families sued the government for wrongful death, arguing that the air traffic controllers hadn't kept the two planes at a safe distance. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew sided with the government in a ruling that was both final and inconclusive:
Yes, the controllers failed in their duty, Bucklew wrote.
No, the families didn't prove that wake turbulence caused the crash.
But neither did the government prove pilot error.
Bucklew's 20-page opinion left open the question of why David Cahill's Beechcraft Baron landed upside down.
The men were headed to Memphis for a business meeting.
The jet was slightly less than 4 nautical miles ahead of the Baron. This was a violation of Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.
Air traffic controllers must make sure approaching aircraft of those sizes stay at least 4 nautical miles apart.
The jet landed on a parallel runway about 900 feet away. The Baron's initial approach looked good. Then a witness saw it snap to the left.
"Oh, my god," a passenger heard Cahill say.
Two years later, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the crash was probably caused by wake turbulence. But by law, that report was not admissible in court, said the plaintiffs' attorney, John Murray.
The trial took place in February. The government called Dr. Kenneth Orloff, a former NASA research scientist, who analyzed radar data and testified that Cahill was out of position for landing.
A firefighter who treated one of the passengers said the passenger remembered Cahill saying something like, "We're out of position for landing, and we're going to abort."
Another government expert testified that it would have been scientifically impossible for the jet's wake turbulence to affect the Baron, given that the jet landed fully two minutes before the Baron did.
The judge concluded that even though the air traffic controllers "breached their duty," there was no proof they caused the crash.
Cahill, 51, was an experienced pilot. He had more than 3,000 total flight hours. He was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Visibility was good. There was no evidence of mechanical malfunction.
Thomas Lake can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3416.