BEIJING — Divers have found the body of a missing U.S. stunt pilot whose plane crashed into a lake in northeast China while attempting a tricky maneuver in the rain, the head of the team searching for him said Friday.
David Riggs, whose U.S. pilot’s license had been suspended, had been missing since Tuesday’s accident outside the city of Shenyang in which his young female Chinese translator died. Riggs was in China to take part in an air show and was apparently rehearsing one of his tricks when the accident occurred.
Zhang Fang said Riggs’ body was found during a search of the bottom of Lake Caihu by divers from the Dalian branch of the Beihai Rescue Bureau.
“It’s likely he was killed on impact, but we don’t know for sure yet,” Fang said by telephone from the accident scene.
Riggs’ high-performance single-engine Lancair 320 plane broke into pieces after hitting the lake and some parts had been recovered, including one of its two seats. The cause of the accident remains under investigation. The plane was not equipped with a “black box” recorder because of its small size.
Zhang said Riggs crashed while attempting a stunt in which the wheels of his plane were to drag along the lake surface at high speed. He had just taken off in a light rain, but there was no indication he had violated any flying regulations, Zhang said. Other reports said Chinese officials had urged Riggs not to take off, but Zhang said he had no information about that.
Riggs was a well-known Hollywood stunt pilot, and the center of considerable controversy over a string of legal problems and penchant for self-promotion.
Riggs’ website touts his credentials as a holder of several aviation speed world records, but doesn’t mention the fact his U.S. pilot’s license had been suspended twice.
The first time was after buzzing the famed Santa Monica pier in Los Angeles in his Vodochody L-39 Albatros jet trainer. Riggs was sentenced to 60 days of community service and 60 days in jail for reckless flying.
He lost his license again in November for selling rides in his plane without permission. The prosecution came after an L-39 jet piloted by a business partner crashed, killing both people on board.
Authorities determined that Riggs had been flying next to the second plane before it crashed. FAA investigators found that Riggs and the pilot who was killed, Douglas Edward Gilliss, had sold several rides to people at Boulder City Municipal Airport in violation of FAA regulations.
After the Boulder City crash, the FAA took an emergency action to revoke Riggs’ commercial pilot certificate and any other FAA-issued certificates. Two weeks before the 2012 crash, Riggs had met with FAA safety inspectors in Van Nuys, Calif., and assured them he wouldn’t take passengers on flights for compensation.
Despite the assurance, FAA investigators found that Riggs did take passengers on three flights for money from the Boulder City Airport and had a fourth lined up when the crash occurred.
“Your deliberate operation as pilot in command on the three … flights when you knew such flights were contrary to the Federal Aviation Regulations was reckless so as to endanger the life or property of another,” states the FAA’s emergency revocation order.
Riggs had a stack of other legal problems, including convictions for bank, wire and passport fraud. He aroused such contempt among some pilots that a website — aviationcriminal.com — was devoted to chronicling his misdoings.
His website describes him as CEO of California-based Mach One Aviation, Inc. and as a “Hollywood stunt pilot, movie producer and world aviation speed record holder.” It said his aerial performances had featured in movies and television shows including “Iron Man,” ”Jarhead,” and the James Bond film “Casino Royale.”
Despite his license suspension, he was hired by the organizers of the AOPA-China Fly-In 2013 air show as one of its star attractions.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency said other U.S. flyers scheduled to take part in Friday’s opening ceremony had pulled out of the show. Pilots and aircraft from Sweden, France and Lithuania were due to take part in the show.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal contributed to this report.