Pilot and former U.S. Olympic snowboarder Trevor Jacob has pleaded guilty to a felony charge of obstructing a federal investigation into the deliberate destruction of the wreckage of an airplane he intentionally crashed for a YouTube video.
According to information supplied by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a plea agreement and a one-count information charging Jacob, 29, of Lompoc, California, was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Jacob agreed to plead guilty to one count of destruction and concealment with the intent to obstruct a federal investigation. The crime carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. Jacob is expected to make his initial court appearance in a few weeks.
According to court documents, Jacob, a YouTube personality described as an experienced pilot and skydiver, obtained a sponsorship from a manufacturer of a wallet. Jacob agreed to promote the company’s wallet in a YouTube video that he would post. Most of Jacob’s videos show athletic activities and garner about a thousand hits a day. The 13-minute video “I Crashed My Airplane” was uploaded to YouTube on December 23, 2021, and includes a promotion for the wallet. The video, which is still up on YouTube, has accumulated more than 3.1 million views.
In the plea agreement Jacob admitted he faked the engine failure in order to make the video. He also admitted lying to an FAA aviation safety inspector when he said the airplane’s engine had quit and, because he could not identify any safe landing options, he had parachuted out of the airplane.
The FAA revoked Jacob’s pilot certificate in April 2022.
As FLYING previously reported, on November 24, 2021, Jacob took off from Lompoc City Airport (KLPC) in his recently purchased Taylorcraft BL-65. According to multiple reports in local newspapers, the aircraft needed maintenance, and there is some question as to whether the aircraft was airworthy. Jacob did not obtain a ferry permit before the flight.
At first Jacob claimed the purpose of the flight was to travel to Mammoth Lakes (KMMH) to go snowboarding. He had outfitted the aircraft with multiple cameras—some were mounted inside the cockpit, others attached to the wings. Approximately 35 minutes into the flight when the aircraft was over the Los Padres National Forest north of Los Angeles, the engine “quit,” and Jacob, wearing a sport parachute, bailed out of the aircraft.
The video is edited to show Jacob’s reaction to loss of engine power, and although there is a camera mounted inside the cockpit that faces the panel, there are no shots showing the position of the throttle or mixture knobs, or the position of the magneto switch at the time of the power loss or after.
The video then switches to a view of the cockpit from the left wing, then the tail of the aircraft, then back to inside the cockpit. Jacob has a handheld camera mounted on a selfie stick that he grabs before he bails out. As he falls away from the aircraft, he keeps the camera pointed on his face.
The video was posted to YouTube on December 23, 2021. Immediately it drew the attention of the aviation community and it was copied, shared, and scrutinized by millions of viewers.
Aviation professionals and law enforcement were immediately suspicious the event was staged. It was pointed out Jacob was wearing a sport parachute, something not normally worn by pilots on cross-country flights. As Jacob records himself hiking out of the brush after the bailout he talks about the benefits of wearing a parachute, stating he always wears one when he flies. However, a search of his other flying videos on YouTube contradicts this.
Investigators also noted that when the engine loss happened in the distance there can be seen a flat open area where Jacob could have ostensibly attempted an emergency landing instead of jumping from the aircraft. Also, there appears to be a significant amount of fuel in the header tank of the aircraft, as shown by the tube fuel gauge atop the cowling, and a freeze-frame of Jacob’s separation from the aircraft shows a cylindrical object strapped to his left calf—under his pant leg—that has the same dimensions as a fire extinguisher, a piece of equipment usually not carried as part of a pilot’s personal gear.
In the plea agreement, Jacob stated that after he touched down he hiked to the wreckage location and recovered the data containing the video recording of his flight and crash.
On November 26, 2021, four days after the event, Jacob informed the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) about the crash. Although the NTSB does not normally investigate unscheduled off-airport landings of vintage light aircraft unless there is a failure of a flight-control system, damage to something other than the aircraft in excess of $25,000, or serious injuries as the result of the accident, the agency made an exception in this case. The agency informed Jacob the crash was under investigation and that he was responsible for preserving the wreckage so it could be examined.
Three days later, the FAA launched its own investigation into whether Jacob violated FAR 91.13—careless and reckless operation of aircraft—and was flying an unairworthy aircraft without a ferry permit.
According to the plea deal, Jacob agreed to provide both the coordinates of the downed plane and videos of the crash to the NTSB. However, in the weeks following the crash, Jacob told investigators he did not know the location of the wreckage. This was a lie, according to the plea agreement, because on December 10 Jacob and a friend flew a helicopter to the wreckage site and retrieved the airplane. It was airlifted to Rancho Sisquoc in Santa Barbara County, where it was loaded onto a trailer attached to Jacob’s pickup truck and hauled back to KLPC.
The wreckage was placed in a hangar, and over the course of the next few days Jacob cut the airplane into smaller pieces that he then deposited into trash bins at the airport and other places. Jacob admitted this was “done with the intent to obstruct federal authorities from investigating the November 24 plane crash.”