SACRAMENTO, Calif. – On Sept. 3, a settlement was reached in front of Judge Scott Snowden (Ret.) on the wrongful death action filed by the family of agricultural aviator Steve Allen in the amount $6.7 million and, as a result, is establishing the standard as to the use of meteorological evaluation towers for wind prospecting in agricultural areas.
On Jan. 10, 2011, a 60-meter meteorological evaluation tower (MET) that had been erected in April of 2009 took the life of well-known and respected Northern California agricultural aviator, Steve Allen.
Allen had been hired by Bouldin Farming Company to spread winter wheat on one of the fields in Webb Tract Island, located in Contra Costa County. The tower was an eight-inch galvanized, unmarked, unlit tower manufactured by NRG Systems. It was installed by Echelon Environmental Energy and PDC Corporation, which had been hired by Renewable Resources Group, the agent and representative of ZKS Real Estate Partners and Delta Wetland Properties to monitor wind levels to prospect for the potential of a wind energy farm on Webb Tract.
According to the family’s attorneys, the tower was constructed in a fashion to avoid being above 200 feet, which would have triggered FAA regulations that required the tower to be marked so was visible and could be seen by low-flying aviators.
“These defendants were mindful that the FAA had a requirement of marking and lighting such a tower if it exceeded 200 feet,” the attorneys said in a prepared statement. “By attempting to erect a tower literally inches under 200 feet, they believed that the tower was not required to be evaluated or registered with the FAA, nor compliant with the requirements that it be marked and made visible if over 200 feet.”
All of the defendants, through their insurance carriers, have contributed to the $6.7 million settlement, attorneys said.
On the day of the accident, Allen was never made aware of the existence of the tower by Bouldin Farming Company, and from eyewitness accounts, it was clear that he never saw it before he struck it and fell to his death.
Allen’s death was not the first where agricultural aviators struck unmarked and unlit METs during daytime operations.
These towers, in the last five to 10 years, have become much more popular as investors look for locations to install wind farms. The same towers have been the subject of NTSB advisories as to the danger they pose to agricultural aviators, attorneys note.
Allen, who was 58 at the time of his death, is survived by his wife, Karen Allen, of more than 20 years, and his two adult daughters, Gail and Angie. Allen, who had logged over 26,000 accident free hours in his agricultural aircraft, had a stellar reputation for safety and ability, the attorneys said.
“He set the gold standard for aerial application,” said Brent Tadman, farms operation manager for M&T Staten.
“Steve Allen was a consummate professional and our go-to agricultural aviator. His death was a tragic and unacceptable loss that we all felt,” said Mark Boyd, farms operation manager for Hastings Island.
Both men testified that the standard required farmers to tell agricultural aviators of obstacles like this one once they are created, something that did not happen in this incident.
Andrew Moore, executive director for the National Agricultural Aviation Association stated, “We believe that this case, and the result, sets the standard of care in the agricultural and MET community. Now those individuals who lease land for the use of METs and wind energy investors have to recognize that the standard for them is to mark these towers and obstructions so that agricultural aviators will be able to be aware of their presence and avoid them accordingly. Strobe lighting, painting and other visible markings along with databases showing exact geographical locations of these towers are some of the proper
safety standards to use to protect agricultural aviators from low-level towers.”
“Agricultural aviators deal with hazards every day they are in the air and they need to know of obstacles and hazards. We believe this case establishes a standard of care in the community, and wind energy and agricultural businesses are now on notice of this standard of care that is required of them and the potential exposure that they face, should they not properly and adequately mark these towers so that members of the aviation community are not killed,” said Rod Thomas, owner of Thomas Helicopters in Gooding, Idaho and 2014 president of the National Agricultural Aviation Research and Education Foundation, who also testified in this action.
“No amount of money is ever going to compensate the Allen family for the loss of Mr. Allen,” said Roger Dreyer of Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora, LLP, counsel for the Allen family. “He was an exceptional pilot, father and husband. His family continues to mourn the loss, but take solace in knowing that with his death, his lasting legacy will be the impact on the agricultural aviation industry that he so loved. We can only hope that those individuals in the wind industry, agricultural field and those who manufacture and install these MET towers understand that their failure to mark them adequately with lights and obstruction warning devices puts aviators, like Mr. Allen, at risk of losing their lives when there is absolutely no reason for taking that risk.”
This matter was scheduled for trial in Contra Costa County on Oct. 6. Previously, Karen Allen had helped sponsor legislation in California and Colorado to have towers marked and identified so that agricultural aviators would be notified and aware of MET’s existence so they could be avoided. She continues working with the NAAA and others so that these types of obstructions are adequately marked.