August 5, 2001: Dr. Mark Sajjadi, 78, is in the left-hand pilot seat of his 1997 Beechcraft Bonanza B36TC (N1109T). The private single-engine aircraft is accelerating at takeoff on Runway 36 at the Lonnie Field Airport in Weaverville, California. Local time is approximately 2:13 PM.
In the right front seat is Dr. Sajjadi’s Scientologist son-in-law Steve Funderburg. Seated in the rear of the plane is is Dr. Sajjadi’s daughter Dr. Susan Booth. She is a dentist, a Scientologist, and the wife of Steve Funderburg. Mark Booth, her 11 year old son from a previous marriage, is seated next to her.
Located in Northern California’s Gold Country, Lonnie Field Airport is surrounded by thick heavy forests and high mountains that climb to about 8000 feet in places (2350 meters). The airport is non-towered, which means it has no FAA flight controller on duty and no flight control tower.
There are more than 20,000 non-towered airports in the US. These small airports exist to serve the 220,000+ general aviation aircraft in the US where there 605,000 private pilots. “General aviation” is a term which denotes non-commercial aircraft owned, or rented, by private parties.
There is an enormous disparity in the skill of private pilots in the US. The skill levels range from expert to dangerously unskilled. One of the biggest risks in general aviation are wealthy amateur pilots purchasing incredibly expensive high-performance aircraft without possessing the requisite learning, training, testing, flight experience, and flight hours needed to pilot such aircraft safely.
The death of John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1999 was caused by his serious inexperience as a pilot. The plane crash killed him, his wife, and his sister-in-law. JFK Jr. is the classic example of a wealthy person purchasing and flying a high-performance aircraft which he was simply not qualified to fly, particularly given the atmospheric conditions on the night of the fatal flight. Worse, JFK Jr. had declined the offer made by a Certified Flight Instructor he knew to fly with him that night.
JFK Jr. had only 310 hours of total flight time when he crashed. Of those hours, only 36 were spent flying his high-performance Piper. JFK Jr. took off at night. This was extremely dangerous as he had only 9.4 hours of actual night flying time. JFK Jr. became spatially disoriented in the dark and flew his 300hp Piper Saratoga straight into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard killing himself and the Bessette sisters.
Dr. Sajjadi’s 1997 Beechcraft Bonanza B36TC had a 300hp turbocharged Continental engine and sold new for $500,000 USD. For its day, the plane was a high-performance six-seat aircraft with a climb rate of 1030 fpm, a top speed of 203 mph, and a service ceiling of 25,000 feet. Did Dr. Sajjadi have the requisite skills needed to fly this turbocharged aircraft from a small and remote non-towered airport that day?
It was a very hot afternoon. Witnesses said the ground temperature at the airport was between 90-100 Fahrenheit (32- 8 C). Situated at 2350 feet in elevation, the heat and elevation combined to work against Dr. Sajjadi’s airplane on this particular day through an effect called density altitude.
What “density altitude” means is that as altitude and air temperature increase, the air density decreases. Hence, while Weaverville is at 2350 feet in elevation, on hot days its effective altitude is much higher. This is because air molecules are less dense on hot days and therefore reduce the amount of lift the wings of an aircraft can generate at takeoff.
Moreover, the engine on Dr. Sajjadi’s plane would have produced somewhat less power at takeoff due to the altitude; there is less air to mix with the fuel and this results in reduced power. The turbocharger on his plane would offset this to a certain extent, but there is still a decrease in power output.
Lower-density air also decreases the efficiency of an airplane’s propeller as it spins through the thinner air. This means the propellor will produce less thrust. Given the density altitude that day, it was later calculated that Dr. Sajjadi’s plane was taking off at an altitude equivalent to >4,000 feet in elevation.
Density altitude is not Dr. Sajjadi’s only problem that day. In fact, it is only one of many problems. For example, Dr. Sajjadi is taking off with a tailwind which requires an airplane to use more runway distance to get airborne:
Tailwind is wind blowing from behind the aircraft. It reduces the lift and aircraft generally avoid taking off or landing in tailwind. Other than this, tailwind is preferred by aircraft in flight because it causes the aircraft to go faster, saving time and fuel.
According to later expert opinion, Dr. Sajjadi had the air conditioner on inside his airplane. The air conditioner was consuming critical engine power the plane needed to takeoff. It would later be determined that Dr. Sajjadi had loaded his plane slightly above its maximum gross weight limit and had not properly calculated weight and balance.
Lonnie Pool airport has only one runway which is 2980 feet long. One end is marked 18; the other end is marked 36.
As the photo below shows, the runway runs downhill from 18 to 36. This is crucial information.
- Takeoffs are permitted only on Runway 18. This is because the terrain runs downhill. This is called “falling terrain” in aviation and it helps in a takeoff by making it easier for a plane to gain speed. The falling terrain also makes the treeline which lies a short distance beyond the departure end of the runway lower and therefore easier to clear.
- Landings are allowed only on Runway 36 as the terrain runs uphill at a 3.5 percent gradient . An uphill landing helps an airplane slow down faster. As can be seen in the photo, a high treeline begins just beyond the end of Runway 36. For this reason takeoffs are not allowed due to the danger of taking off on rising terrain so close to a treeline.
In addition to the other factors working against him, Dr. Sajjadi was taking off from Runway 36.
Why was Dr. Sajjadi taking off uphill towards the 50-foot tall treeline?
Prior to his flight, Dr. Sajjadi had called the FAA Flight Service Station briefer because he was uncertain how about which runway to use for takeoff at this unattended rural airport. He had landed on Runway 36 when he had flown into Lonnie Pool airport earlier.
The FAA briefer gave Dr. Sajjadi the wrong information and told him to use Runway 36 for takeoff. This contradicted FAA published data. As the pilot in command, the doctor relied upon a phone call and failed to check for himself the published FAA chart on the airport. Moreover, a good pilot should have seen both the terrain of the runway and the treeline and easily deduced that a downhill takeoff was self-evident.
As would emerge in the pretrial motions, Dr. Sajjadi did not read the terrain or the published charts on the airport. He also failed to see the red airport warning sign at the threshold of runway 36 which reads “This R/W Closed for takeoff use R/W 18.” For a pilot whose logbook recorded 4,000 hours of flying time, Dr. Sajjadi ignored all the red flags.
Dr. Sajjadi’s plane lifted off the runway at 2:13 on that hot afternoon. According to later expert opinion, the plane had only climbed 10-12 feet above ground level when its right wing made initial impact with an oak tree. This impact sheared off part of the right wing. Within a fraction of a second, the left wing hit another tree causing the wing to separate from the plane. The aircraft fuselage was propelled about 50 feet through the trees at a speed of 45 mph before impacting the ground with a “vertical velocity of 25 feet per second.” The NTSB accident report stated:
The fuselage was located about 124 feet north, or beyond the runway 36 pavement end, in heavy forestation. Multiple tree strikes fragmented the wings into several sections strewn between the fuselage and the beginning of the forest. The rubber leading edge fuel cells were torn and scattered with no sign of post accident fire. The empennage was twisted to a point of separation from the fuselage with tree impact signatures. The propeller displayed rotational signatures with leading edge gouges and chordwise striations and severed tips.
Due to the multiple tree strikes ripping the wings apart into numerous pieces, the fuel inside the wing tanks scattered across a wide area and did not ignite. There was no explosion and fireball in this plane crash which would have killed all souls aboard.
Tragically, Dr. Susan Booth, age 44, was killed on impact in the prime of her life. Her father and husband were injured; her 11 year old son survived with minor injuries.
The survivors of the plane crash sued the United States of America for personal injury and wrongful death. This is because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is a US Government agency. The plaintiffs claimed the FAA was negligent and responsible for the crash, the wrongful death of Dr. Susan Booth, and the injuries suffered by her family members who survived the crash.
Susan Booth’s son Mark was represented in the lawsuit by his natural father Robert Dale Booth who acted as Guardian ad Litem for his son.
Update: The initial complaint captioned Funderburg et. al. v. United States of America (US District Court, Northern District Court of California Case 5:02-cv-05461-JW) was filed on November 19, 2002. In this filing, the following is stated:
25. Plaintiff STEVE FUNDERBURG was the spouse of Decedent DR. SUSAN BOOTH was dependent upon her for his support and maintenance. Plaintiff is entitled to maintain this action as an heir of Decedent as defined in section 377.60(b) of the California Code of Civil Procedure.
Plaintiff Steve Funderburg filed a lawsuit, in part, to collect financial damages that would support him for the rest of his life as his deceased wife would have continued to do had she not been killed. In a later court filing dated September 2, 2005 Funderburg claimed he was employed as a sales consultant at the time of the crash. He claimed lost earnings of $6800 from the date of the crash on August 5, 2001 through October or November 2001. This means he was earning about $2,000 per month. This discrepancy is one of the many numerous discrepancies in this case.
Dr. Susan Booth’s income was about $280,000 a year according to court records. Of this, she had donated between $80,000 – $100,000 per year to the Church of Scientology for the past four years. This money paid for her auditing through Clear and prepaid for her OT levels. Much of the money was also donated to what was then called the Super Power Building. This edifice would later be renamed the Flag Building.
Dr. Booth’s income and donations to Scientology would become extremely important matters.
The crash survivors additionally filed claims against Dr. Sajjadi’s insurance company and Trinity County, California where the Lonnie Field airport is located. In turn, Dr. Sajjadi’s insurance company and Trinity County, California sued the US Government for contribution and indemnity, i.e. if the insurance company and Trinity County were found liable at trial and had to pay damages due to the FAA’s alleged negligence, then the FAA had to pay them back in full for their financial losses.
The US Government counterclaimed and placed the blame entirely on Dr. Sajjadi:
8. The United States was not negligent, careless, or reckless with respect to any
of the acts or omissions that caused or contributed to the accident. The reckless, careless, grossly negligent and/or negligent conduct of Counterdefendant was the sole and proximate cause of the accident.
9. By reason of the reckless, careless, grossly negligent and/or negligent conduct
of Counterdefendant, the United States is entitled to, and hereby seeks to recover for any liability which the United States, or any of its present or former agents or employees, or any of its agencies, may be adjudicated to have to any and all persons arising out of the accident, including but not limited to damages for losses for personal injury, wrongful death or property damage, and/or for any amounts paid by or on behalf of the United States in settlement or compromise of claims resulting from the accident and/or attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in defending the claims arising from the accident. (Counterclaim of USA against Mark Sajjadi, M.D. Case No. C 02-05461 JW (Consolidated With C 03-04066 3 JW))
In the whirlwind of many lawsuits and motions — and the case went on for five years — the Church of Scientology, a nonparty to the airplane crash, would become legally involved in a very unexpected way as we report in Part 2.
A YT video shows the 2012 Idaho crash of a single-engine piston aircraft due to density altitude. As the narrator explains, the plane took off on a hot day from a high altitude dirt runway, failed to gain sufficient lift and speed, and crashed into tall trees where it also experienced multiple tree strikes that ripped the plane apart. This video is similar to what it would have looked like from Dr. Sajjadi’s plane:
Categories: The Scientology Money Project