The mother of three Minnesota boys who died with their father in a 2010 plane wreck in western Wyoming is suing a company that provides air traffic control services at the Jackson Hole Airport.
Michelle Bucklin sued Virginia-based Serco Inc. in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne this week, claiming an air traffic controller's negligence caused the crash. She brought the suit as personal representative of the estates of her three sons who died in the crash.
Pilot Luke Bucklin, 41 of Minneapolis, 14-year-old twins Nate and Nick, and 12-year-old Noah all died when their small plane went down Oct. 25, 2010, in Wyoming's rugged Wind River Range.
Michelle Bucklin was living in Minnesota at the time of the crash, but her lawsuit says she now lives in Arizona.
Luke Bucklin was Michelle Bucklin's ex-husband and had subsequently remarried. He was president and co-founder of the Bloomington, Minn.-based Web development company Sierra Bravo Corp.
Bucklin had flown to Jackson in his single-engine, 1977 Mooney propeller plane to attend a family function. He had tried to book a commercial flight home when a snowstorm hit the area but decided to fly his own plane when the commercial flight was cancelled.
A voice recording of Bucklin's doomed flight shows he was struggling to gain elevation over the extremely rugged Wind River Range in bad weather immediately before the crash.
"Descending rapidly," Bucklin says on the recording. The Associated Press obtained the recording in 2011 through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Aviation Administration.
"Reporting severe mountain waves," Bucklin said about a minute later, referring to wind currents over the peaks. "Probably going to (garble)."
Mountaineers found the wreckage of Bucklin's plane and the bodies of the four victims after a weeklong search.
Rock Springs lawyer Frederick J. Harrison represents Michelle Bucklin. He declined comment on Thursday.
The lawsuit states, "the airplane that Mr. Bucklin was piloting at too low an altitude, as allowed by Serco, was sucked from the sky and violently collided with a mountain."
Attempts to reach Serco officials for comment at the company headquarters in Reston, Va., were unsuccessful.
The National Transportation Safety Board adopted its report on the cause of Bucklin's accident last October. It states that Bucklin had phoned flight services at the Jackson Hole Airport twice to get weather briefings the day of his flight. Both reports warned of "mountain obscuration," turbulence and icing.
The NTSB concluded Bucklin's decision to fly his heavily loaded plane over mountains in snowy weather probably caused the accident.
However, the NTSB also noted that an air traffic controller had given Bucklin an improper flight clearance, spelling out a path that would take him over some of Wyoming's highest mountain peaks at too low an altitude. The agency said that the improper clearance, and Bucklin's acceptance of it, contributed to the accident.
Page 2 of 2 - "The assigned altitude was lower than and counter to FAA published requirements for the area in which the pilot was flying," the report states, "but neither the pilot nor the controller questioned the altitude assignment."
The NTSB said that Bucklin's plane was at or near its maximum certified weight at takeoff. "Although the information was available to him, the pilot was either unaware of or discounted the fact that the clearance route that he was issued and accepted required a minimum altitude near the performance limits of the airplane, and that altitude was significantly higher than the altitude he had requested," the report stated.
The report states that Bucklin appeared intent on returning home that day. "This self-imposed time pressure, coupled with his lack of recent (instrument flight rules) experience, likely resulted in his acceptance of the non-conforming clearance," the NTSB concluded.
A separate NTSB report released last August stated that Bucklin's private flight instructor, Walter Nindl, had warned Bucklin about the hazards of flying in mountainous northwestern Wyoming.
"The (instructor) reported that he specifically cautioned the pilot that since the airplane was not turbocharged or pressurized, and was not equipped for flight into known icing, there was a consequent need for the pilot to plan and operate any flights accordingly, in order to provide sufficient safety margins and escape options," the NTSB report stated.
The report states that Bucklin told the instructor that he had flown into Jackson several times and knew the risks. "The (instructor) reported that the pilot gave him the impression that the pilot would conduct the upcoming flight in compliance with the (instructor's) suggestions," it stated.
While the search was still ongoing for Bucklin's missing plane, Ray Bishop, director of the Jackson airport, said Bucklin had taken off while it was snowing heavily. Despite the weather, Bishop said in late October 2010 that the decision to fly was up to the pilot.
"The pilot in command is the pilot in command," Bishop said. He was not available for comment Thursday on the lawsuit, a receptionist at the airport said.