On a clear day in September 2018, a sleek jet touched down on a runway at the Greenville Downtown Airport in South Carolina.
A Tampa couple sat in plush leather seats of the Dassault Falcon 50′s cabin. They didn’t know the pilot and co-pilot of the chartered flight from Clearwater didn’t have the proper certifications to be flying the plane.
On the jet’s instrument panel, someone had affixed a bright green sticker next to a switch that controls the brake system: “INOP,” the sticker said, for inoperable. The sticker bore that day’s date: 9/27/18.
The Dassault landed but didn’t slow down. Seconds later, the jet hurtled off the runway, plunged down an embankment and onto a public road. The fuselage broke like a pencil into two pieces.
The pilot and co-pilot were killed. The couple who chartered the flight, Steve Rose and Marci Wilhelm, were seriously injured and have filed a lawsuit.
The final National Transportation Safety Board investigation report released this month highlights a series of errors and decisions that investigators say led to the crash. The charter company owner and co-pilot, 66-year-old Steve Fox of Indian Rocks Beach, knew the brakes needed to be repaired but flew anyway, investigators found. When the brakes didn’t work upon landing, Fox and the pilot in command, John Caswell, failed to take action that could have stopped the jet.
“Among the hundreds of aviation cases that our firm has handled over several decades, this is perhaps one of the most egregiously unnecessary tragedies we have seen,” Kristina Infante, an attorney representing Rose and Wilhelm, said in a statement. “The NTSB factual report clearly shows that the entities responsible for operating and maintaining this aircraft were forewarned of numerous significant maintenance discrepancies.”
A native of Ontario, Canada, Fox started flying in 1997 and “it became a great passion,” his obituary says.
The father of three sons bought a flight school called Clearwater Aviation in 2001 and Air America Flight services, a charter service and aircraft maintenance company, in 2008, according to the NTSB report and court records. The companies operated out of leased space at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.
Chris Jahr, an attorney representing the companies and Fox’s estate in the lawsuit, declined to comment for this story, citing the pending case.
Fox’s son Tim worked first as a maintenance technician for the companies, then in 2009 became director of maintenance, he told investigators.
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The Dassault Falcon 50 was one of the planes in their small fleet. A page on the now-deactivated Air America website features photos of a Falcon 50, a French-made jet with three engines, a range of 3,400 miles and a top speed of 400 knots.
By 2018, the Falcon had been in storage in a hangar for about four years, Tim Fox told investigators. When his father wanted to put the jet back into charter service, the company drew up a work order with a list of more than 100 repairs and other maintenance tasks to meet federal standards for airworthiness. Among the items were an overhaul of the landing gear and the control box for the anti-skid brake system.
In August and September, a pilot named Luis Hernandez took the Dassault for a series of four maintenance test flights. Steve Fox served as co-pilot for all four flights, Hernandez told investigators.
On all four of the flights, the report says, the plane’s normal braking system didn’t work, so Hernandez had to toggle a switch on the instrumental panel to use the plane’s emergency braking system to get the plane to stop.
The report says Hernandez did some troubleshooting and found the normal brake system worked only at speeds below 20 knots. Hernandez said he pointed out the problem to Steve Fox and told Tim Fox that he believed the anti-skid computer was the source of the problem.
During an interview with investigators in June 2019, Tim Fox told investigators he recalled speaking with Hernandez only once about braking issues. He said Hernandez told him a brake pedal felt soft but once he pumped the pedal, the brakes worked fine. Fox said his father told him not to do anything until he could check it out himself.
“It was his airplane, there really wasn’t a lot I could do,” Tim Fox said, according to the report. “That was some of the tension between us.”
Fox said he didn’t remember Hernandez telling him the brakes didn’t work at high speeds on the normal setting. He told the investigator he didn’t perform any troubleshooting or maintenance on the jet’s brake system.
Investigators concluded the green sticker on the instrument panel showed the company was aware of the problem flagged by Hernandez.
“That pilot reported this discrepancy to the operator’s director of maintenance, and it is likely that maintenance personnel from the company subsequently added an ‘INOP’ placard near the switch on the date of the accident,” the report says.
When Steve Fox and Caswell took off from St. Pete-Clearwater the day of the crash, about 60 percent of the tasks on the service order had been complete and there were no maintenance log entries made indicating that the airplane was airworthy and returned to service, according to the report.
Tim Fox told investigators his father knew the work was incomplete.
“He added there was nothing (Steve Fox) didn’t know about that airplane,” the report says.
Wilhelm founded MedPartners, a Tampa-based health care staffing firm. AMN Healthcare had purchased the company earlier in 2018. Wilhelm stayed on as CEO.
Rose and Wilhelm also own Bortell’s Lounge, a restaurant and bar in Anna Marie Island.
It’s unclear why they were headed to Greenville that day or how they connected with Air America.
Also unclear is how Steve Fox connected with John Caswell to have him serve as pilot-in-command of the chartered flight.
Caswell, 49, of Port St. Lucie, had 11,650 total flying hours, according to the NTSB report. He previously worked for AeroMd, an air ambulance company, a friend and former coworker told WHNS-TV in Greenville after the crash.
“Great, phenomenal pilot,” Corey Crockett, who flew with Caswell at AeroMD for several years, told the station. “I trusted him with my life.”
But as the Times has previously reported, Caswell had an airline transport pilot certificate and Federal Aviation Administration type ratings for Learjet and Westwind business jets. He had only second-in-command privileges for the Falcon 50.
Steve Fox wasn’t certified to be in the cockpit of the plane at all. He held only a private pilot certificate for visual flight and no instrument rating or type ratings.
The Falcon approached the Greenville airport about 1:45 p.m. A review of the cockpit voice recorder showed Caswell and Fox did not use any pre-landing checklist or discuss that no braking was available with the brake system in the No. 1 “ON” position, according to the report.
The jet touched down at what an air traffic controller later told investigators was a standard touchdown point on the runway. In the next few seconds Caswell could be heard saying that the breaks were not operating, and he and Fox commented about the lack of brakes several more times before the plane plunged off the runway.
A surveillance camera on a strip club across the street captured the plane touching down and crashing.
The fuselage split behind the cockpit. Caswell and Fox died of multiple blunt force injuries.
Wilhelm and Rose were hospitalized with serious injuries. A couple of weeks after the crash, Rose posted a public post on his Facebook page calling their survival “nothing short of a miracle” and reporting that they were both expected to make a full recovery.
Investigators on the scene noted the brake switch was in the normal braking position and the parking brake handle was in the stowed position. That showed that Fox and Caswell likely tried to use the normal braking system and when that didn’t work, failed to switch to the emergency braking system or use the parking brake, the report says.
The report summed up the probable cause of the crash: “The operator’s decision to allow a flight in an airplane with known, unresolved maintenance discrepancies, and the flight crew’s failure to properly configure the airplane in a way that would have allowed the emergency or parking brake systems to stop the airplane during landing.”
Robert Katz, a Dallas-based flight instructor and veteran pilot who tracks plane crashes across the nation, doesn’t think the Falcon could have stopped in time even with working brakes. The runway is 5,400 feet, long enough for experienced pilots who do everything right. But Katz said the video indicates the plane touched down too far down the runway at too high of an airspeed.
“It probably would have continued on for at least another 1,000 feet if not for that ditch,” he said. “No pilot in their right mind would drop any airplane onto a runway without sufficient length for that airplane to roll to a stop in anticipation of brake failures.”
Wilhelm and Rose filed suit in Hillsborough County circuit court in November 2018. Among the defendants are Air America Services and the estates of Fox and Caswell.
A response to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Linda Caswell, the representative for John Caswell’s estate, denies any liability for the crash. John Maggio and Eli Burton, attorneys representing Linda Caswell, did not respond to emails or voicemail messages from the Times.
Twelve days after the crash, Tim Fox resigned from Air America and turned over the company’s federal air carrier certification, known as a Part 135 certificate, effectively ending the charter business.
“The fact that the aircraft flew despite these significant problems illustrates the safety lapses that are endemic among many Part 135 operators,” said Infante, the attorney. “This is an area where the regulators have failed to ensure adequate safety standards.”