KLM Flight School Blamed for Fatal Crash in Arizona

     PHOENIX (CN) – A flight school operated by Amsterdam-based KLM faces a negligence claim from the grieving father whose son crashed in an Arizona canyon.
     Taylor Bennell was one of three killed in a Piper PA-28 that crashed into the wooden terrain of a canyon near Strawberry, Ariz., on Sept. 13, 2012, according to the complaint in Maricopa County.
     Lucas Westenberg had allegedly been flying the plane as a student of KLM Flight Academy aka KLS. The third victim of the crash was KLS head of training Rob van den Heuvel. Bennell worked for CAE Oxford Aviation Academy Phoenix, which had a training-services agreement with KLS, according to the complaint.
     CAE said it could not comment about a pending court case.
     Bennell’s father, Robert, emphasizes in the lawsuit that his 25-year-old son was a certified flight instructor licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration but never licensed by the European equivalent of the FAA, the Joint Aviation Authorities.
     Without JAA licensing, Bennell “was not allowed to provide flight training to students in the KLM program according to the training agreement between CAE and KLM as well as JAA regulations,” according to the complaint.
     As such, Bennell was working at CAE in an administrative capacity on “the day of the horrific accident.”
     “Despite knowing that Bennell was not properly certified, CAE and/or KLM employees
     or agents directed him to terminate his administrative duties and provide flight instructions in contravention of the training agreement,” the complaint continues.
     Bennell had allegedly been ordered to provide Westenberg with flight instruction.
     His father says Bennell “accepted the flight as he was training to be a JAA certified airline pilot and believed his training would be terminated or hindered by defendant Rob van den Heuvel if he refused the flight.”
     The complaint describes Bennell as a “student instructor.”
     Meanwhile “van den Heuvel had a well-known reputation of being cavalier regarding flight safety and [for] engaging in unsafe flight practices,” the complaint states.
     “Van den Heuvel enganged in intimidating tactics and behavior with the CAE flight instructors and had great influence over which students would progress though the CAE/KLM training program and eventually become JAA certified airline pilots.”
     Before the flight departed from Falcon Field in Mesa, Ariz., van den Heuvel allegedly changed the destination of the flight from Winslow to Payson, Ariz.
     Payson is at a higher altitude than Winslow, and “the terrain has canyons and areas that may be dangerous for flights depending on the performance characteristics of the aircraft conducting the operation,” the complaint states.
     Bennell’s father says his son and Westenberg were not warned ahead of time of the destination change, and the plane that they were instructed to use “had a history of mechanical malfunctions and had recently been repaired.”
     The plane “was overweight, due to fuel and three occupants, and underpowered for flight into the higher terrain which defendant Rob van den Heuvel directed student pilot Westenberg to fly into,” according to the complaint.
     Bennell’s father attributes the crash to “the failure of the defendants to properly operate within the aircraft’s operating limits, failure to properly plan for the flight, failure to properly pilot the aircraft, failure to ensure a safe operating culture and protocols, a contractual training agreement that financially penalized CAE if a certain number of operations were not met thereby sacrificing safety for economic gain, and the laisez faire and renegade safety attitude and intimidation of defendant Rob van den Heuvel.”
     Bennell died from trauma and “horrific burn injuries” when the plane crashed, the lawsuit claims.
     According to the complaint, the training agreement between CAE and KLM “had financial incentive awards and penalties associated with the number of training flights provided to KLM flight students,” contributing “to a culture whereby safe flight practices were sacrificed for economic gain.”
     Robert Bennell seeks $5 million in damages for wrongful death. He is represented by Michael Pearson and Kyle Sherman of Curry, Pearson & Wooten.
     In addition to suing the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines subsidiary, Canada-based CAE and its school in Arizona, Bennell’s father named the estates of van den Heuvel and Westenberg as defendants. Two couples – Jerod and Kameron Bybee, and Gerrit and Jane Doe Assink – are also defendants. The complaint names Jerod Bybee as CAE’s chief flight instructor and Gerrit Assink as the director of KLS.

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