Teen pilot in fatal fireworks crash ran out of gas

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Seth David Killian was towing an advertising banner high over tens of thousands of people gathered for Detroit’s June 2016 fireworks show when his single-engine Cessna 150L sputtered.

Seth David Killian’s airplane lies smashed in the middle of the intersection of Shoemaker and Cooper on the east side of Detroit near I-94 and Gratiot Avenue on June 27, 2016.

The pilot, 18, tweaked the controls, but seconds later his engine quit. He crash-landed on Shoemaker Street, two miles short of Detroit’s city airport and walked away with only scrapes.

Theresa Surles wasn’t so lucky. The plane brought down a power line that hit the 38-year-old Detroit woman in the chest as she got out of her nearby car, electrocuting her.

Surles, who was heading to the Ford Fireworks with friends and her children, died nine days later.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators now say Killian of Jackson ran out of gas after flying too long – and it may have been the second time that month he landed without fuel on a banner-towing flight. He may even have fallen asleep while flying over the Detroit River that night, the investigation suggests.

Theresa Surles

The records shed light on the circumstances surrounding the June 27 incident and Killian’s actions leading up to the forced landing.

Investigators asked Killian if he had carried out a “deadstick” landing – in which a pilot touches down without engine power – at a Wisconsin airport less than three weeks earlier.

Killian first denied being in Wisconsin. Then he told investigators he was “running low on fuel” when he landed in Wilmot.

They also asked Killian whether he told a pilot that he did not answer his radio for 10 minutes while flying over the Detroit River because he dozed off at the controls, the records state.

An unidentified banner pilot said Killian did not answer his radio while flying in “large pitch oscillations,” and that Killian later told the pilot he had fallen asleep, investigators said.

Killian denied having such a conversation or sleeping while airborne, according to investigators. He told them any oscillations were less extreme than described and had been caused by “winds through the buildings.”

When pressed by investigators, Killian declined to comment further.

They agency’s findings led some to question whether Killian should still be permitted to fly. According to FAA records, he remains a licensed commercial pilot and certified aviation instructor.

“I’m surprised the FAA hasn’t revoked his license,” said Don Moss, a pilot who runs a Nevada-based consulting company for aviation accident investigations. “Good pilots don’t have to just have good flying skills, they have to exercise good judgment. And from the sound of it, he has not.”

Tommy Payton, a family friend who lives near Surles’ home on Shoemaker, shook his head upon learning the NTSB said the pilot had run out of fuel.

“That’s crazy – how do you run out of gas in an airplane?” Payton said. “He shouldn’t be flying.”

Efforts to reach Surles’ family members were unsuccessful.

Killian, who has not been charged with any crimes, referred questions to his attorney, Alan Armstrong, who did not return calls or emails.

A busy day in the air

Killian had already had a long day in the air when he took off from Detroit’s Coleman A. Young International Airport shortly before 6 p.m. that day.

His mission: Tow a banner with a message for a local car dealership over the nearly 1 million people gathered along both sides of the Detroit River.

Killian began at Lansing’s airport for flight instruction from 8-10 a.m. but the flight was canceled due to a parts problem on the aircraft. He then flew a Cessna from Lansing to Howell, where he had flight instruction from 10:30 a.m. until 4 p.m.

Killian flew the Cessna to Detroit for the banner-towing job, which was supposed to end with him landing back at the east-side airport by 9 p.m.

James R. Miller, the owner/operator of Air America Sign Banners, had hired Killian, but became alarmed when he learned the pilot had been airborne on the banner flight for more than three hours, according to the investigative reports. Company policy limits flights that pull the 100-foot-long banners to 2 hours, 45 minutes.

There were also concerns that Killian had continued flying too far south of the Ambassador Bridge, beyond the scope of his flight.

Miller, who was flying one of four other banner-pulling planes, told investigators he ordered Killian to land immediately after reaching him by radio.

Miller wrote in a signed statement that Killian “showed no concern of his time” in the air – though he had been warned before not to stay aloft too long.

“He proceeded back to Detroit (city airport) with what seemed like not a care in the world when he lost his engine,” Miller wrote.

Killian told investigators he took immediate action while heading toward the airport, six miles to the northeast.

“I enriched the fuel mixture and turned on the auxilliary fuel pump and the engine continued to run for a few seconds before it failed completely,” he said, according to the agency’s reports.

“I informed Detroit City (Airport) Tower and released the banner almost immediately after and flew the aircraft to an emergency landing,” Killian told investigators.

The banner fell along Cooper Street, police said.

The Cessna ran out of gas at 8:53 p.m. and crash-landed five minutes later, records state.

Reached last week, Miller refused to discuss Killian’s brief time as a contract employee with his firm.

“I haven’t talked with Seth in over a year. Beyond that, I really have nothing to say,” said Miller. “For all I know, he may still be flying. But he hasn’t for us.”

Fuel trouble in Wisconsin

A day after reports of the Detroit accident, a pilot in Wisconsin, Greg Chapman, recalled a similar incident June 11 at the Westosha Airport.

Chapman spoke to investigators after filing a report saying he had seen a pilot he believed to be Killian “glide” what he thought was the same Cessna 150 into that airport.

After landing, the pilot manually pulled the aircraft off the runway by its propeller to get to an airport gas pump, Chapman told investigators.

Killian allegedly told Chapman his company credit card wouldn’t work at the pump and Chapman offered to pump enough fuel into the aircraft to get Killian to another airport.

Killian blamed headwinds that hadn’t been forecast for causing the plane to use more gas, Chapman said.

Chapman said he gave Killian, who acted as though running out of gas “was no big deal,” a lecture on aviation safety, he told investigators.

When agency investigators reviewing the Detroit incident pressed Killian about the Wisconsin landing, he eventually recalled flying to Wilmot from Toledo to tow banners, but he denied running out of gas.

FAA regulations stipulate that no person may begin a flight, in daytime visual meteorological conditions, unless there is enough fuel to reach the intended destination, plus 30 minutes while at a normal cruising speed. Pilots must account for wind and forecast weather conditions.

Banner-towing can greatly increase fuel consumption. Towing can burn 9.5 to 10.5 gallons of gas per hour, quickly depleting the Cessna’s 40-gallon capacity, Andrew Todd Fox, an air safety investigator for the NTSB, told Miller in a Nov. 17 email.

‘An open investigation’

Nearly a year later, Killian’s crash landing in Detroit remains under investigation.

Detroit police, who responded to the June 27 incident, referred questions to federal investigators.

Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, said the incident never resulted in any review for criminal charges.

FAA officers contacted in Michigan referred questions to the FAA’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Chicago.

Tony Molinaro, an FAA spokesman in Chicago, declined to comment.

The FAA can suspend or revoke a pilot’s license and levy fines. It also can require extra training and a “check ride” with an inspector to assess a pilot’s skills.

Killian has logged more than 1,000 hours’ flying time and 363 hours as an instructor, according to FAA records.

He is a junior attending Michigan State University in an undergraduate degree program in mathematics and computer science.

An examination of the Cessna after the Detroit incident found no mechanical failure. In a July 7 memo, inspector Lawrence Krasniewski said the engine ran smoothly during a test.

The NTSB summed up the incident: “The pilot’s disregard of the banner-tow operator’s policy regarding the maximum allowable flight duration ... resulted in a total loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion.”

Moss, the aviation accident consultant, called Killian’s alleged conduct in Detroit “unacceptable.”

“What he did by flying at risk of running out of fuel is unforgivable — it’s totally unacceptable by any standpoint,” Moss said. “It is the very definition of recklessness.”

The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Surles’ death accidental.

Payton, Surles’ neighbor, said her family is “doing all right” nearly a year after her death.

“I talk to her daughter every day,” said Payton, 22. “She just asked me to go to the graveyard to put flowers on her mom’s grave.”

(248) 338-0319

George Hunter contributed.