A plane crash during an aerial birthday “gift of lifetime” sadly marked the final gift of a lifetime for Richard Winslow, 65, of Palm Desert, California, on May 18, 2012. Now Winslow’s widow, Sherri Winslow, who arranged what should have been a thrilling birthday for her husband along with seven of his friends, is suing the company that offered the “Top Gun” experience.
Winslow and his buddies were supposed to go airborne in Czhecoslovakian-made Aero Vodochody L-39 fighter jets — powerful planes built mainly for training Soviet pilots during the depths of the Cold War from the 1960s to the 1980s.
The “Top Gun Dogfighting Experience,” staged by the company Aviation Classics at a price of $29,000, paid by one of Winslow’s buddies that day, promised to recreate the daring in-flight maneuvers seen in the movie Top Gun, giving passengers the actual experience of riding the skies in a military jet at speeds of up to 485 mph.
But on the third flight of the day, with experienced pilot David Gillis at the controls and Richard Winslow in the passenger compartment, the L-39 never made it into the skies. Witnesses said they saw the plane emit a puff of smoke moments after takeoff.
Gillis made at least three Mayday calls in the next few moments, and then the plane crash happened.
The L-39 crashed in a stretch of empty desert just a half-mile from the Boulder City, Nevada, airport where it took off just seconds before, spraying wreckage over a 480-foot debris field and killing Richard Winslow and David Gillis on impact.
Under federal regulations, the L-39 is categorized as an “experimental” plane, to be used only in exhibition flying. The plane may not be used to carry passengers “for compensation or hire.”
The FAA also said that the plane, and another L-39 that took off at the same time as the plane carrying Winslow but did not crash, had not filed flight plans.
Gillis, it was later revealed, had earlier lost his pilot’s license after he falsely certified another pilot, David Zweigle — who himself later died in a plane crash of a similar Soviet-era plane, along with a co-pilot. The Zweigle crash was blamed on pilot error.
Gillis had regained his license by the time he flew the plane that crashed killing himself and Richard Winslow. He was a pilot in Vietnam and had served as a training pilot in the decades since.
Sherri Winslow is now suing Aviation Classics for negligence, pain and suffering, lost earnings and loss of consortium, all because of the horrific birthday plane crash.