CHEYENNE, Wyoming — The federal government and a company that provides air traffic control services at the Jackson Hole Airport have entered confidential settlements to end lawsuits brought by estates of a Minnesota man and his three sons who died in a plane crash after taking off from the airport.
Luke Bucklin, 41, of Minneapolis, 14-year-old twins Nate and Nick, and 12-year-old Noah all died when they crashed in Wyoming's rugged Wind River Range on Oct. 25, 2010.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded last year that Bucklin's decision to fly his heavily loaded plane over mountains in snowy weather probably caused the accident. But the NTSB also noted that an air traffic controller employed by Serco Inc., a Virginia-based company, instructed Bucklin to fly over the mountains at too low an altitude.
Luke Bucklin's estate brought a federal lawsuit against Serco in federal court in Cheyenne last fall. Michelle Bucklin, Luke Bucklin's former wife who is from Arizona, filed a similar lawsuit against Serco in federal court this year in Cheyenne on behalf of the estates of her three sons.
U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson earlier this month dismissed the lawsuit of Luke Bucklin's estate after the parties filed notice they had reached a settlement. He dismissed the lawsuit brought by the children's estates last month following a settlement in that case.
Kathleen M. Byrne, a Colorado lawyer representing Serco in both lawsuits, declined to comment.
Mark Hallberg, a lawyer in St. Paul, Minnesota, who represents Luke Bucklin's estate, said Monday that the estate had filed notice of legal action against the FAA but hadn't filed a lawsuit against the federal agency.
Hallberg said both Serco and the FAA have agreed to confidential settlements. He said the claim against Serco has been resolved while the U.S. Department of Justice is still working to get final approval and payment of the FAA settlement.
"I'm confident that that the matter will be settled, and will be finalized the way we have agreed upon," Hallberg said of the FAA claim. "The family has chosen not to disclose the amount of the settlement, but it is a substantial settlement."
Allison Price, spokeswoman for the Justice Department, confirmed Monday that the government had settled the administrative claim from Luke Bucklin's estate. She said she couldn't reveal any information about the terms of the settlement or say whether the FAA had changed any policies as a result of the crash.
Hallberg said the investigation by Bucklin's legal team uncovered a number of documents that he said showed the air traffic control system had failed Bucklin.
"While he was sitting on the runway, they rerouted his flight, changed his flight plan, and routed him over a route that he had not planned to travel," Hallberg said. "And they approved a flight level that was unsafe, in violation of federal regulations."
Bucklin was president and co-founder of the Bloomington, Minnesota-based Web development company Sierra Bravo Corp. He had flown his single-engine, 1977 Mooney propeller plane to Jackson to attend a family event.
On his return flight, Bucklin took off with his three sons in a snowstorm and soon ran into trouble as he tried to cross the Wind River Range, an extremely rugged group of mountains that includes Wyoming's highest peak, Mount Gannett, which reaches just over 13,800 feet.
Hallberg said he didn't believe that Bucklin would have flown over the mountain range if he had known it was dangerous.
Hallberg said he believes the NTSB report pointed the finger at Bucklin and minimized the role of the FAA. "I think our investigation and the settlement make it pretty clear that the FAA bears a significant responsibility for this crash," he said.
Frederick Harrison, a lawyer in Rock Springs, represented Michelle Bucklin and the estates of the three boys.
"It's a tragedy any time you have three sons and a father die," Harrison said Friday. "They died needlessly. They didn't have to die, if the FAA and the Serco people at the tower had been doing their job and directed the aircraft to fly at the proper altitude in a snowstorm. This wouldn't have happened if they had been doing their job."