When Steve Allen, a highly respected Northern California ag pilot with 26,000 accident free hours, crashed his Rockwell S-2R into a whisper-thin, barely visible galvanized steel wind observation tower on January 11, 2011, a dark and sickening secret about personal greed and avarice was exposed for all the world to see.
The $6.7 million wrongful death settlement the aviator’s family was awarded this month will hopefully help ensure other similar tragedies won’t happen in the future.
The tower, measuring just inches under 200 feet, was hastily erected in 2009 by wind energy interests “prospecting” for the perfect site for a new wind farm in Contra Costa County east of San Francisco. The odd height of the tower is central to the case — any tower under 200 feet doesn’t need to be lighted or reported to the FAA. But because these towers can pop up almost anywhere and are nearly impossible to see in flight, they pose a special danger to aerial application aircraft.
Allen, 58, was spreading winter wheat for a local farm when he flew his single-engine turboprop into the unlit, unmarked tower. According to the National Transportation Safety Board accident report, the pilot was never told about its existence and never saw it.
The meteorological evaluation towers, known as METs and equipped with small anemometers, have been cropping up all across the country as investors seek to cash in on the wind energy craze. By keeping them just below 200 feet, wind farm entrepreneurs save the money, time and hassle of registering them with the FAA — while putting ag pilot’s lives at risk.
“No amount of money is ever going to compensate the Allen family for the loss of Mr. Allen,” said Roger Dreyer, the family’s lawyer. “He was an exceptional pilot, father and husband. We can only hope that those individuals in the wind industry, agricultural field and those who manufacture and install these MET towers understand that their failure to mark them adequately with lights and obstruction warning devices puts aviators, like Mr. Allen, at risk of losing their lives when there is absolutely no reason for taking that risk.”
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