Couple sues Oxford Aviation, claim part of plane’s tail fell off plane during flight

Posted Aug. 31, 2013, at 6:26 a.m.

OXFORD, Maine — An Ohio couple who claim to have had a near-death experience because of shoddy work done by Oxford Aviation have filed a lawsuit in Maine U.S. District Court seeking at least $200,000.

Joseph Skilken & Co. and Karen Skilken, both represented by Brann and Isaacson, a Lewiston law firm, filed separate lawsuits against Oxford Aviation on Aug. 21

The lawsuits allege that “negligent and reckless” actions by Oxford Aviation resulted in a May 31 emergency landing of a Cessna 441 aircraft at the Colorado Springs (Colo.) Airport.

According to the suits, Oxford Aviation failed to fasten and attach a portion of the Cessna’s tail section after repainting the aircraft, causing it to fall off during flight.

The company, located at the Oxford County Regional Airport on Number Six Road in Oxford, paints, refurbishes and maintains aircraft.

Reached at his office Friday, Oxford Aviation owner and President James Horowitz of Casco declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Steven Skilken, 63, was piloting the Cessna with five family members from their home city of Columbus, Ohio, to Colorado Springs when a section of the airplane’s tail broke off, sending the plane into a “violent yawing oscillation” as it was coming in for a landing, the suit alleges.

Because of Skilken’s “extraordinary efforts” a tragedy was averted and the aircraft landed with only one passenger, Karen Skilken, suffered minor injuries, the suit alleges.

In a phone interview Thursday, Steven Skilken said he hired Oxford Aviation in early May to repaint the Cessna before a trip to Las Vegas with his family for Karen Skilken’s 50th birthday.

The aircraft is owned by Joseph Skilken & Co., his real estate company.

Skilken said he had never dealt with the company but was impressed by its website and facilities. He was assured by Horowitz that the job would be completed by May 29, he said.

The job wasn’t finished by the agreed date and Steve showed up at Oxford Aviation’s hangars on the morning of May 30 to find the plane “in pieces all over the place,” he claims.

Aside from the fact that it was late, the paint job was poorly done and because of the delays, Horowitz agreed to take $13,000 off his bill, Skilken said.

At about 5 p.m. he finally took a test flight with one of the mechanics and, satisfied that the plane was safe, flew it home to Columbus, Ohio.

The next day, he said, he loaded up his two daughters, ages 9 and 12, his wife, his in-laws and took off for Colorado Springs. During the flight nothing seemed out of the ordinary, until the plane hit some turbulence at 15,000 feet as it descended into Colorado Springs, he said.

In an instant, the six occupants were suddenly holding on for their lives as the aircraft kicked and bucked underneath them, Skilken recounted.

“It was like being in a clothes dryer on the tumble setting,” he said.

The violent twisting was so jarring it tore onboard tables out of their housing and exploded the toilet, spraying blue fluid inside the cabin, the suit alleges.

Karen Skilken, in an interview Thursday, said parts of the cabin were flying through the air as the plane bucked up and down. Unhinged components flew across the cabin, narrowly missing the passengers. One of the tables came within 4 inches of her 9-year-old daughter’s throat, she said.

“I truly thought we would die,” she said.

Through it all, her husband remained calm, she said. Somehow, he was able to right the plane and bring it down safely on the runway.

A veteran pilot with more than four decades of experience, Steven Skilken said he got his pilot’s license when he was 19 years old.

Looking through the windshield, all he saw was sky, trees and desert as the plane, directionless, spiraled through the sky, he said.

“I don’t know how I did it, but I did it,” he said.

A flight controller later told him the aircraft looked like a moth, flipping and flopping as it fell to the tarmac, he said.

Skilken remembered his 12-year-old daughter, who was sitting next to him in the cockpit, looking up and asking if they were going to die.

“I just said, ‘Be quiet, honey,’” he recounted.

His daughter spoke to him one more time during the harrowing descent, asking him to turn off the XM radio that was piping Ke$ha’s “Die Young,” into her earphones, he said.

That Skilken was able to land the plane at all shocked a representative from the FAA who was at the scene, he said.

“He told me I needed to buy a lottery ticket, I was so lucky,” Skilken said.

Photos of the aircraft provided by Skilken show surprisingly slight damage from the emergency landing, including a chipped propeller and a blown tire.

John McGinley, a representative from the Colorado Springs Airport, confirmed that a Cessna 441 with six passengers and the same tail number as the Skilkens’ declared an emergency and landed at the airport on May 31.

He said the pilot was unable to maintain altitude, but McGinley could not comment further.

Months later, family members say they haven’t recovered from the terrifying experience. Karen Skilken said she was uncomfortable flying and Steven Skilken reported that his 9-year-old was afraid to fly.

In her suit, Karen Skilken claims Oxford Aviation’s actions and inactions servicing the Cessna were “so extreme and outrageous as to exceed all possible bounds of decency and were atrocious and utterly intolerable.”

She is suing the company on counts of negligence and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Joesph Skilken and Co. is suing on the grounds of breach of contract, breach of warranty, negligence, negligent misrepresentation and fraudulent representation.

On Thursday, Steven Skilken said he wants Oxford Aviation to pay for the approximately $200,000 damage to the plane, as well as a full refund for the work it did.

In addition, he may be seeking damages for the costs to his business. Skilken said he frequently uses his plane to transport clients and has had to hire charter flights since the Cessna has been out of service. According to its website, Joseph Skilken and Co. rents property in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Florida.

He said multiple calls to Oxford Aviation from himself and his attorneys made in the past three months had not been returned.

According to proof of service documents from the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, Horowitz was issued a summons, on behalf of his company, from the court for both suits on Aug. 27.

Oxford Aviation’s repair certificate was suspended by the Federal Aviation Administration in July and restored on Aug. 19. According to the agency, the license was restored after a management review of the company.

“I’m amazed that they are allowed to have their license,” Karen Skilken said.

On Friday, FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said it was probable that the agency was looking into the incident, but she did not confirm an investigation.

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