Originally Published: February 15, 2008 7:45 p.m.
PRESCOTT - A community aviation event that regularly attracts as many as 15,000 people will not take place this year because of a looming lawsuit over a 2006 airplane crash.
Malcolm Barrett Jr., spokesman for the Arizona Skyfest, announced this week that the Prescott Air Fair Association had decided to cancel its 2008 air show because of a wrongful death lawsuit that names the organization as being partly at fault for an October 2006 airplane crash.
The crash, which occurred about 16 miles northwest of Prescott, killed pilot William "Billy" Friedman and passengers Andy Boquet, Donald Morris, Joshua Vaughan and Warren Parkes.
Parkes and Friedman were prominent in the Skyfest air show as its executive director and operations director, respectively.
The air show, which has taken place at Prescott's Ernest A. Love Airport for the past four years, annually has drawn thousands of people to watch a variety of aeronautical displays.
Despite the growing popularity of the event, the Prescott Air Fair Association decided that its "hands were tied" this year with the prospect of the lawsuit, said Barrett, who serves as a board member for the association.
"With the threat of litigation hanging over our heads," Barrett said, the association members worried that any sponsorship revenue the organization might generate to produce the 2008 event could be in jeopardy.
Noting that the association is a non-profit organization, Barrett said its only source of revenue is through sponsorships. All of that money traditionally goes into staging the air show. The prospect of having that money ultimately have to go toward a lawsuit was "not fair" to the sponsors, Barrett said.
The air show suffered a major blow in 2006 with the loss of Parkes and Friedman, Barrett said, and the association was just "picking up the pieces" for the October 2007 event. "We had a learning curve," Barrett said of the largely new board. "We have zero assets right now; we have only liabilities."
The September 2007 lawsuit over the crash pits the survivors of Vaughan, Morris and Boquet against a number of defendants, including Friedman's estate, the company that owned the plane he was flying, the pilot and owner of the MiG-21 aircraft that was flying alongside the plane that crashed, and the Prescott Air Fair Association.
In a fall 2007 report, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the crash occurred because Friedman failed to keep an adequate distance between the Piper Cheyenne he was piloting and the MiG, which passengers in the Cheyenne were photographing.
The report also found that the Cheyenne flew into the MiG's high velocity jet core exhaust, which caused it to slam upside down into the ground.
Records at the Yavapai County Superior Court, where plaintiffs filed the lawsuit, indicate that the suit involves at least seven law firms - each of which represents a different plaintiff and defendant.
Basically, the lawsuit maintains that Friedman and Robert E. Ray, the MiG pilot, "owed a duty of care" to the passengers of the two planes, and should have taken more care in preparing for and executing the flight.
In their answers to the claim, three of the plaintiffs deny many of the claims and also note that they have no knowledge of other aspects.
Ray's response, for instance, denies the wrongful death lawsuit's claim that the MiG pilot "owed a duty of care ... to see and avoid the Cheyenne, including a duty to ensure that the Cheyenne avoided encountering the wake turbulence of the MiG by maintaining in-flight separation."
Attorneys for Ray and the Friedman estate were unavailable for comment Friday afternoon, as was an attorney for Vaughan's case.
However, Prescott attorney Mark Drutz, who is representing the Morris family, said it is common for defendants in such cases to make general denials.
But, Drutz said, "they can hardly deny the fact of the crash and that these people were killed."
Drutz expressed surprise that the Prescott Air Fair Association had opted to cancel its 2008 event, noting that the plaintiffs were still "in the process of deciding" whether to keep the association in the lawsuit. He pointed out that the plaintiffs' attorneys had recently received word from an air fair attorney, notifying them that the Skyfest had no assets and no insurance.
Barrett disputes the inclusion of the Air Fair Association in the lawsuit. Pointing out that none of the board members from October 2006 remain on the Air Fair board today, Barrett said, "To my knowledge, no board members knew about the (October 2006) flight. The decision (to take the flight) was made autonomously by Warren (Parkes)."
Barrett added that both Parkes and Friedman worked as volunteers for Skyfest. Parkes received only a percentage of the sponsorships for his photography company, Barrett said, and Friedman "was all volunteer; he was not paid in any way, shape or form."
Barrett concluded: "The flight in which this tragedy occurred had nothing to do with the Air Fair Association."
While the Skyfest will definitely not take place this October, Barrett said he still hopes the association would bring the event back for 2009.