By Karla Bowsher, BrowardBulldog.org
A deadly mix of pilot error and an air traffic controller’s negligence has led a federal judge to order the United States to pay $4.4 million to the family of a wealthy Boca Raton businessman who crashed his private plane in bad weather six years ago.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined in 2007 that Michael Zinn, 52, lost control of his Cessna P337H while flying alone through, rather than around, stormy conditions.
Miami U.S. Magistrate Judge Edwin G. Torres, after presiding over a multi-day bench trial, ruled two weeks ago that Zinn was primarily – 60 percent – responsible for his own death, but that failures at Miami’s Air Route Traffic Control Center also contributed significantly to the accident.
“Neither the air traffic controllers nor Michael Zinn were bad actors in this tragic accident,” he wrote in his 97-page findings of fact. “History shows us that a pilot’s greatest enemy, more often than not, is nature’s challenges.”
The ruling supports the NTSB’s determination that the probable cause of the Oct. 19, 2005 accident was Zinn’s poor flight decisions and controller Harvey Pake’s failure to provide Zinn with weather conditions and assist him in navigation.
“Pake breached his duty of care in providing complete and accurate weather briefings when it was possible to do so and highly pertinent to Zinn’s route of flight,” the judge wrote.
Pake did not warn Zinn that he was flying into hazardous weather and allowed Zinn to fly closer to it, Torres said. “Compounding that breach of the duty of care, he then failed to provide any navigational assistance when the pilot requested,” Torres wrote.
“I’M GOING TO DIE”
Zinn lost control in a severe thunderstorm. As he plunged to earth, controllers and pilots heard him shout “Help!” and “I’m going to die!” over a period of two minutes.
Then, at 6:59 p.m., an American Airlines pilot radioed, “He’s not yelling ‘help’ any more by the way.” The plane crashed into a house in Port St. Lucie. A young man living there escaped without injury.
Pake, a Weston resident, declined to comment. He still works at the FAA’s Miami traffic control center, currently as a front line manager, according to the FAA Employee Directory.
FAA spokesman Jim Peters, based in New York, declined to comment, stating that the U.S. Department of Justice represented the FAA in the lawsuit. The Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.
Steven C. Marks, a lawyer for Zinn’s estate, likewise did not respond to requests for comment. Marks, of Miami’s Podhurst Orseck, had sought damages in excess of $54 million.
Zinn departed Boca Raton Airport en route to Myrtle Beach, S.C. to play a round of golf. Although he obtained his pilot’s license in 1982, he had not flown for about four months.
Zinn “set in motion the chain of events that led to the crash” by initially abandoning his intended route to Myrtle Beach in favor of a more direct route where he knew he would encounter thunderstorms, the judge said. Then, he added, Zinn approached thunderstorm-like conditions even though the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual states that flying within 20 miles of a thunderstorm “should be approached with great caution, as the severity of turbulence can be markedly greater than the precipitation intensity might indicate.”
For his part, Pake provided weather readings “directly in front of Zinn – at his twelve o’clock,” the judge found. But navigation rules required that he also indicate weather conditions to the west.
“With knowledge that Zinn was flying (using instruments) in a small plane with limited weather capability, this controller failed to provide sufficient accurate weather information to allow Zinn to make informed decisions,” Torres wrote.
Once in the storm, court records say, Zinn reduced power in response to turbulence even though pilots are trained not to do so in such situations. He quickly lost control and plummeted almost 10,000 feet before crashing. Zinn, 52, was killed on impact.
The multimillionaire had owned a home in Boca Raton since at least 2000, according to property records. As an entrepreneur and businessman, he made regular trips between Boca Raton and his hometown of Kingston, N.Y., where his businesses were based.
In 1976, at 23, Zinn founded alternative energy company Bio-Energy Systems Inc., now Besicorp Group. The company was later acquired for $105 million, according to The New York Times.
In 1992, the Times reported Zinn served as campaign finance manager for U.S. Representative Maurice D. Hinchey, D-N.Y. In 1997, Zinn pleaded guilty to campaign finance fraud charges and was sentenced to six months in federal prison. He was released the following year.
Zinn’s adult daughter, Randi Zinn, and a cousin, Frederic Zinn, co-represented his estate in the lawsuit.
Randi Zinn did not respond to interview requests.
Karla Bowsher can be reached at KBowsher@BrowardBulldog.org.