John Cary Fowler had plenty of experience as a pilot, logging more than 15,000 hours in the air.
But on June 7, 2013, he was making his first flight in a Beechcraft King Air B200GT. A national safety agency says that lack of experience with the aircraft was likely the cause of the fiery crash in Baker that day, when the plane slammed into a subdivision, set fire to three houses and killed the 71-year-old pilot.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s causal report, dated Sept. 15, found that Fowler was unfamiliar with the aircraft’s equipment and that his inexperience led to the two-engine plane losing speed and stalling before crashing to the ground.
Fowler’s only other flight with that model came hours earlier, when he was flying to Baton Rouge with two other passengers. One could be heard on the plane’s cockpit audio recorder “pointing out” to Fowler some of the features of the plane, according to an earlier NTSB report released in August.
Fowler, of Brookhaven, Mississippi, then dropped off the pilots and was flying out of Baton Rouge toward McComb, Mississippi, when the plane stalled and crashed.
“Everyone knew that this was a tragedy, but … it strikes me that this easily could have been prevented,” said Logan Greenberg, an attorney with Ungelsby Law Firm, which is representing more than 30 Baker residents affected by the crash. “This did not come out of nowhere.”
The NTSB reports also provide new details about the crash itself. Minutes after Fowler took off alone from Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport at about 1 p.m. on June 7, the two-engine plane — which is about 44 feet long and could have seated up to 11 people — began losing speed and was slowly descending. The plane’s audio captured a stall warning, and in Fowler’s last radio transmission, he said he was going to crash.
The plane crashed into the roof of a Rue Jennifer home, spilling fuel all over it, before striking a nearby tree and shed. The plane then caught fire while still sticking upright in the corner of a home. The blaze badly damaged three houses, but no one on the ground was injured. Most of the plane was destroyed by the fire, and the left propeller’s blades were found twisted and separated from the rest of the wreckage, while two other blades were burned away.
The plane’s last captured speed was 102 knots, the equivalent of 117 miles per hour.
The incident, Greenberg said, “was not some freak accident. … It was very clear cause and effect — somebody didn’t know how the plane worked, and that led to the plane crashing. It was terrible.”
Greenberg says the NTSB reports bolster lawsuits he filed in state district court against the pilot’s employer, Osage Air. The lawsuits, filed in late May, are in the early stages, but they allege the company should have taken more precautions before letting the pilot try to fly an unfamiliar plane on his own.
An attorney for the firm representing Osage Air, Bradley Schwab, denied the allegations in court documents filed in July. He declined to comment further on the lawsuit.
Greenberg said he isn’t yet sure how different the plane was from other planes Fowler had flown. On that question, the NTSB reports note that Fowler had flown “another similar model” that was “slightly older and had a different avionics package,” referring to its electronic equipment.
The monthslong aftermath of the crash has posed a host of problems for Baker neighbors. As late as January, one of the homes on Rue Jennifer still stood charred with its roof mostly caved in and looked as if the plane crashed into the roof only days earlier. Garbage bags with belongings from the home’s residents were still left in the backyard. At a Baker City Council meeting that month, neighbors also came away with no clear answers as to whether leaked jet fuel posed a health risk. Nine months after the crash, the soil was deemed safe.
The lawsuit also claims that residents are still suffering anxiety and depression nearly one year later.
“When they hear a plane now, they’re terrified,” Greenberg said.