SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – More than a decade after a federal agency blamed pilot Georgina Joshi for a plane crash that killed her and four passengers, her father is still fighting to clear her name.
That's not all that Yatish Joshi aims to accomplish with “Invisible Sky,” a new documentary film that he has executive produced.
The South Bend businessman and former congressional candidate hopes it will pressure Congress and the National Transportation Safety Board to devote more resources to investigating small plane crashes, known as “general” aviation. He also wants Congress to take oversight of the agency.
On April 20, 2006, Georgina, born and raised in South Bend, was a 24-year-old promising opera singer, studying at Indiana University Bloomington's Jacobs School of Music. That night, Georgina, an amateur pilot, had flown four friends from Bloomington to West Lafayette for a performance of Mozart's “Requiem.”
On their return to Bloomington, the plane crashed about a half-mile from Monroe County Airport, killing her and passengers Zachary Novak, 25, of Anderson; Robert Clayton Samels, 24, of Medina, Ohio; Garth Eppley, 25, of Wabash, Indiana; and Chris Bates Carducci, 28, of Monroe, Michigan.
The day after the crash, Yatish was relieved when two Federal Aviation Administration investigators contacted him and said they had been deputized by the NTSB to investigate the crash. He knew of the NTSB's strong reputation for investigating commercial aviation crashes, so he figured the same would hold true for general aviation, which covers everything for which you don't buy a ticket for a scheduled flight, such as small planes, corporate jets, medical helicopters and agricultural aircraft.
But Yatish has since come to learn that while fatal airline crashes have been reduced to near-zero in the United States, fatal general aviation crash deaths have held steady at around 1,000 per year.
Those two FAA investigators, in that next-day visit, told Yatish that his daughter's crash was likely caused by her young age and lack of flying experience, along with poor weather. About 14 months later, he said, he was “devastated” when the agency issued a final report finding the same thing.
Yatish, owner of South Bend-based GTA Containers Inc., was immediately skeptical that Georgina's piloting caused the crash, saying she was highly skilled in the cockpit.
“She had an unbelievable ability to adapt to what was going on,” her flight instructor, Ronald R. Burns, says in the film. “I've taught a lot of people to fly in my days, and she was one of the very best. She ended up with something like 400 hours. She flew like she had over 1,000 hours. I never worried about her going out and getting into trouble.”
In their final probable cause report, the FAA investigators concluded that Georgina had flown below the clouds in an effort to see the runway because visibility was so poor, striking the tops of some trees and flipping end-over-end before plummeting directly into a wooded area near the airport.
Yatish then hired an engineering firm to reconstruct her approach and analyze available data from that night, and he hired Barnes & Thornburg to file a petition asking the NTSB to reconsider its findings.
Their investigation found no damage to the plane's underbelly, raising questions about whether she struck the trees. The firm also found people who lived east of the airport and called 911 to report hearing a plane that had been flying too low to be Georgina, and she had approached the airport from the northwest, so she wouldn't have been as close to the witnesses.
Those findings led to an alternative theory that there was a second plane that had tried to land on a runway perpendicular to Georgina's; she saw it at the last second, attempting an evasive maneuver that caused her to lose control of the plane and crash.
But the NTSB ultimately refused to reconsider its findings. Yatish appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear it because it ruled that the NTSB, under its congressional charter, is an independent agency not subject to oversight by the courts or Congress.
“They have jurisdiction over an area that they don't have the time or manpower or budget to address,” said Yatish's wife, Joan. “When an airplane goes up in the air, it could fall on your car, on your house, your children's school, your place of business. A lot of people say, when they hear about general aviation issues, `Who cares, I'll never be able to afford an airplane or be up in a private airplane. That's a rich man's problem.' Well, it's not.”
Georgina's crash wasn't the only aviation tragedy Yatish has suffered through. Another one came about 20 months later, when he was piloting a plane near Traverse City, Michigan, with his then-wife, Louise Addicott, as his passenger. She died in the crash.
Yatish said he has never read the NTSB's report on that crash, but his family has told him the agency cited icing on the plane as the cause.
“I don't talk about my accident,” he said before becoming emotional. “I just keep it to myself. It's very painful.”
Yatish estimates he has spent about $2 million on commissioning the independent review of the crash and funding the documentary. Part of that money is paying Los Angeles film distribution strategist Gerry Maravilla to get it seen as widely as possible.
Maravilla said he is shopping “Invisible Sky” to film festivals, both national and regional, and he's encouraging aviation-related groups and schools to show it at community screenings. He will also offer it to streaming services.
“People are intrigued,” he said. “The aviation law community is one that I've seen the greatest interest in because these are often attorneys that are working on the front lines with families that have been impacted and kind of running up against the exact same hurdles that Yatish did.”
Mike Danko, a San Francisco attorney who represents the families of aviation crash victims, recently wrote about the film's trailer release on his “Aviation Law Monitor” blog. He said he plans to watch the film but doesn't think it is likely to bring about change in Washington.
“The NTSB was basically set up to be independent and not to determine who is at fault, but to develop safety recommendations for the industry,” Danko said. “Very, very long odds.”
He said seeking more funding for the NTSB is a “worthy goal,” but it's a longstanding, well-documented problem.
“You'd have to totally restructure the NTSB, at least with regard to small aircraft crashes, because the resources just aren't there,” Danko said. “Plane crashes are always noteworthy, but unless you are a family member, typically nobody cares. While the crash makes the news, when the NTSB issues its report, it hardly ever does.”
Still, Yatish, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2018 Democratic primary in the 2nd Congressional District, said he wants to try to raise awareness.
“Hopefully this documentary may create some interest in people to make some legislative change,” he said. “If you eliminate one accident, it's better than nothing.”
(See earlier India-West story here: https://bit.ly/33XwPDA)
— An Indiana Exchange story shared by the South Bend Tribune