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Former airline pilot pleads guilty to obstructing NTSB investigation

The pilot of a Boeing Stearman PT-17 that crashed into Keystone Lake in Oklahoma in August, 2022, after striking a power line, has pleaded guilty to obstructing a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the accident.  

This visualization of ADS-B data created by NTSB investigators shows the flight path of the Boeing Stearman PT-17 before and after it struck power lines and crashed into water near Prue, Oklahoma. NTSB image.

Bruce Ryan Forbes, a former airline pilot with type ratings for the Airbus A-320 and Boeing 737, 757, 767 and 777, was carrying a passenger when the accident occurred, according to the court records.

Forbes told NTSB investigators he was maneuvering at about 900 feet agl when he reduced the engine speed to 1,000 rpm to descend to 500 feet and fly over the lake. Forbes said following the accident that the engine had “sputtered,” and that he was troubleshooting and seeking a safe place to land when the aircraft hit a powerline and entered the water.

According to the NTSB report on the accident, the passenger described the sequence of events very differently, telling investigators that the airplane was “running completely fine” and that she did not hear it sputter. She also said Forbes had been flying very low around the edge of the lake and at one point said, “This is where I like to do some water dancing,” a choice of words the defendant confirmed in a June 3 plea agreement.

The passenger said she noticed the airplane’s altitude was around the height of nearby power lines just before the accident. Investigators reviewed ADS-B data that they said was “consistent with the passenger’s recollection of the flight path and circumstances.”

A boat operating nearby assisted the pilot and passenger, according to the NTSB report. Prosecutors noted in a brief filed June 3 that, after the rescue, the passenger said she heard Forbes say “I can’t believe this happened. This is a $200,000 plane and now it’s all gone. I have to tell the insurance that the engine failed or they won’t cover us.”

During the NTSB investigation, Forbes maintained that engine failure caused the accident. Prosecutors stated that he filed a report with the NTSB that he certified as “complete and accurate,” describing problems with the engine just before the aircraft struck the power line. According to the brief, the passenger, however, provided investigators with video that showed the engine running normally.

The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident was “the pilot’s failure to maintain clearance from power lines during intentional low-level maneuvering.”

In December of 2023 a grand jury charged Forbes with two violations of false statements and one for obstruction of proceedings before departments, agencies, and committees. Forbes entered into a plea agreement under which he agreed to plead guilty to obstruction in exchange for dismissal of the false statement charges, and his guilty plea was accepted by a magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma on June 3.

The obstruction charge carries a penalty of up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Forbes will be sentenced on a date to be determined by the court.

The accident aircraft. NTSB photo.
Zoomed image
The accident aircraft. NTSB photo.
Jonathan Welsh
Jonathan Welsh
Digital Media Content Producer
Jonathan Welsh is a private pilot, career journalist and lifelong aviation enthusiast who previously worked as a writer and editor with Flying Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

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