My Flight with David Riggs

How a foolish flight became a lasting learning experience.

Riggs Flight Blog

Riggs Flight Blog

The body of David Riggs has been recovered from the lake near Shenyang, China, where his Lancair 320 crashed last week. Unfortunately the story hit close to home for me. I hate to admit it, but I flew with Riggs a few years ago. It is an understatement to say that the flight left a lasting impression.

In early 2011 a friend with close ties to Riggs recommended that I go flying with him. At that time, Riggs was based at Van Nuys Airport, only about 20 minutes from my home on the west side of Los Angeles. My friend, who I won't name here, said Riggs was a fantastic aerobatic pilot and that I would be sure to have a lot of fun flying with him. Since I have a passion for aerobatic flight and had never flown in a Lancair before, I decided to take my friend's advice.

I showed up at Van Nuys Airport and met up with Riggs. He had a couple of friends along. I found out that they were part of a group that Riggs had rounded up for a coordinated mock race that combined speed and aerobatics, a show that Riggs hoped to introduce in the United States. Riggs had already successfully brought the show to China. The FAA never approved the concept.

Putting way too much trust in people I had never met before, I jumped into Riggs' Lancair and we took off. We formed up with the two other Lancairs and cruised around the Los Angeles basin in loose formation. Riggs allowed me to do some of the formation flying. It was a beautiful day and it was fun.

Then Riggs upped the ante, and we headed toward the coastal area northwest of Ventura. We were no longer formation flying, but cruising a few hundred feet behind the other airplanes. Riggs brought the Lancair way too close to the water. We appeared to be at the same altitude as the crest of some of the waves, and there were several birds in the area. I was definitely uncomfortable, but I made the mistake of not speaking up. The other pilots played with the contours of the shoreline, cruising very close to the water, then each of them pulled up into a steep climb.

When the reckless beach episode was over, we formed up with the other Lancairs again and returned to Van Nuys. Later I posted a blog about the flight. Several negative comments against Riggs were posted and the blog was eventually removed. My blog also prompted an old friend that I hadn't heard from for years to send me a note. He essentially warned me to stay far, far away from Riggs. I also found out that there is an entire website dedicated to Riggs called Aviation Criminal. I can't vouch for the validity of the information posted there, but the mere fact that somebody would go through the hassle of creating such a site says something. That Riggs twice lost his FAA pilot's certificate and was flying on a Canadian certificate at the time of his death raises all the red flags any potential passenger should need.

Fortunately we didn't hit any waves or birds during my flight with Riggs. Unfortunately, an unsuspecting 18-year-old Chinese translator was not as lucky as I was. It appears that she perished because Riggs was, once again, playing in his airplane much too close to the water.

My experience with Riggs taught me a few things that, particularly after last week's event, will always be on my mind when I fly with people I have never flown with before. Never get in an airplane with somebody unless you know that he or she cares about your safety. Don't ever go along on a formation flight unless you know the pilots are well trained, current and have briefed the flight in detail before the departure. If somebody does something that makes you nervous, speak up. You clearly can't jump out of the airplane, but you can ask him or her to return to the airport and let you out before something bad happens.

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