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Robin Huebner, Published November 02 2012

Robin Huebner Reports: Fargo man suing area adventure-seeking group after July plane crash in Wisconsin

FARGO - It was a hot July day at a northern Wisconsin vacation getaway. Six friends were taking in the scenery of Madeline Island and surrounding Lake Superior.

The island is accessible only by water or air, and the skydiving and aviation enthusiasts had flown there in a small rented plane to enjoy adventures, including sea kayaking.

But when their fun was done and they attempted to take off for the return trip home, something went wrong. The plane got about 20 feet off the ground, pitched left, and at 100 mph, skidded and skipped precariously for several hundred feet, according to measurements later taken by an associate of the plane’s owner. It spun around and came to rest in a marsh with the landing gear destroyed and the wings, engine and propeller seriously damaged.

Miraculously, none of the six people aboard was hurt. After being checked out by an ambulance crew, they got on a ferry to the mainland of Bayfield, Wis., and made their way back to Fargo in a rental car.

But according to the man who owns the wrecked plane, neither before nor after they arrive in Fargo does anyone in the group call him to report the damage or explain what happened.

Victor Gelking, an 85-year-old Fargo pilot and flight instructor, is suing all six adventure seekers to try to recover the loss of his $95,000 airplane. He says the group grossly overloaded the 1970 Piper Turbo Comanche that day despite his warnings, causing it to crash.

Gelking says their costly mistake is putting a major strain on his business, Vic’s Aircraft, and on his personal life.

The civil lawsuit filed earlier this month in Cass County District Court claims breach of contract, negligence and fraudulent misrepresentation.

Named as defendants are two married couples, Wade and Rebecca Baird, recently of West Fargo, and Gregory and Anne Bodensteiner, recently of Fargo, along with Terry Peoples, recently of Fargo, and Ian Lanier, now of Memphis, Tenn., the man who was piloting the plane that day.

Gelking wants a jury trial.

The Bairds and Bodensteiners are represented by Fergus Falls, Minn., lawyer Stephen Rufer, who would not comment on the case.

However, according to the two couples’ answers to the complaint filed in court, they generally deny all of Gelking’s allegations. They say they’re not responsible, because they were only passengers and not the pilot in command of the flight.

Lanier and Peoples have not retained attorneys at this time and haven’t filed a written response in court.

When contacted via Facebook, Wade Baird and Terry Peoples said they couldn’t comment because of the lawsuit.

None of the others on board would respond to repeated attempts by The Forum to talk to them.

Too heavy a load?

Gelking says around July 1 of this year, Ian “Jon” Lanier contacted him about renting a plane for a trip to Duluth, Minn., 90 miles southwest of Madeline Island. Gelking says he had rented to Lanier before with no troubles.

But six people, including Lanier, showed up to board the plane.

“I told them ‘I won’t let you take six people in this airplane!’” Gelking said. “I said there was a four-person limit, maybe five people if that fifth person is light or small.”

Ernie Castilla, manager of Vic’s Aircraft, said every aircraft has a weight and balance document on board detailing total weight limitations for passengers, baggage and fuel. Castilla says he and Gelking spent 15 minutes explaining those limitations to the group.

Gelking told them they had to make multiple trips, and he would give them a break on fuel costs. He says they took his advice and made two trips to Duluth that day, with five people on board for the first leg, then returning to Fargo to get the sixth, heaviest person.

But Gelking says after that, they threw all caution to the wind.

“They’re very lucky to be alive,” said Chris Gourde, jumpmaster at Skydive Fargo.

Gourde knows all six through skydiving adventures.

Was he surprised they weren’t killed or even hurt when the plane went down?

“Absolutely,” he said. “If you look at the pictures, you’ll see it was a short runway. Beyond the runway were trees. Had they cleared the trees, they would have landed in Lake Superior.”

The runway at Major Gilbert Field Airport on Madeline Island is 3,000 feet long, while the runway at Duluth International Airport is 10,000 feet long.

Gelking said even though the plane was overloaded with six people when it took off to fly from Duluth to Madeline Island, it got off the ground because of the longer runway. With the shorter runway on the island, “Everything was against them.”

“The crazy thing is three of the six people on the plane were pilots,” said Gourde. “It’s mind-boggling to most people that there were other people on the plane who knew.”

Lanier has a commercial pilot’s license, which means he can be paid to fly. Rebecca Baird and Gregory Bodensteiner are private pilots, a lesser rating than a commercial pilot.

According to the lawsuit, the pilot in command must have a non-owner renter’s insurance policy, which would cover any damages to the aircraft. Gelking says he learned later that Lanier, the pilot in command, had no such policy, even though he claims Lanier said he did.

According to the answers filed in court by the Bairds and Bodensteiners, Gelking is to blame for not trying to get proof that Lanier was insured.

Gelking’s lawsuit puts the liability on all six people, separately and jointly, in part, because they pooled their money to rent the airplane.

According to their written responses filed in court, the Bairds and Bodensteiners claim that any implied contract to rent the plane is void, because it lacked essential terms.

The investigation

According to the Milwaukee Flight Standards District Office, the Federal Aviation Administration investigation of the incident is still open so no information can be released at this time.

However, the Major Gilbert Field Airport manager was willing to talk about what he saw that day.

Michael Dalzell wasn’t at the airport at the time, but got there quickly after a call from his wife, an ambulance director who saw the Comanche out in the marsh field.

“The pilot saw that he wouldn’t be able to clear the trees, so he aborted the takeoff,” Dalzell said.

“As to the pilot’s judgment, on an 80-degree afternoon, taking off with the load he had … you’ll have to talk with the FAA about that,” he said.

Dalzell explained how weather conditions can affect the way an aircraft performs.

“It was in the mid-80s that day,” Dalzell said. “No aircraft will have as much lift on a hot day as a cold day. It’s a pilot’s responsibility to work out the combination of what’s safe.”

Recovering the plane

Vic’s Aircraft manager Ernie Castilla played the role of aviation detective a few days after the crash.

Castilla was among a small group that flew to Madeline Island to see the wrecked plane first-hand and do their own measurements.

According to Castilla’s calculations, with the six adults on board and their baggage, the Piper Turbo Comanche was almost 500 pounds overweight that day. In addition, with the hot weather and short runway, “The math just doesn’t work,” said Castilla.

“A student pilot would know better,” he said. “That’s what’s so hard to figure.”

Recovering the plane was no easy task.

The plane had to be dismantled on the island so it could be hauled across the bay on a ferry. It was then loaded on a flatbed trailer for the trip back to Fargo.

Gelking had to cover those costs. His wrecked airplane now sits in a hangar at the Hillsboro airport. He says he’s still making payments on the plane, which he’s had for about a year.

Gelking says he exchanged emails with Lanier early on, in which Lanier said he would make amends and was having flashbacks about the crash. But that contact stopped soon afterward.

Gelking wants his damages, costs and attorney’s fees covered. He says it would help get his business back on track.

“Pilots have a lot of loyalty to each other,” he said. “I just can’t figure these people out, why they acted that way.”

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