Stearman Pilot Found Guilty Of False Statements In Water Crash

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A former airline pilot has admitted lying to federal authorities regarding the crash of a Stearman biplane he was flying with a passenger in the summer of 2022. Former United Airlines pilot Bruce Forbes, 66 at the time, initially told authorities the Stearman experienced engine trouble on a sightseeing flight over a lake and he struck power lines while he was trying to troubleshoot the engine issues. On Monday (June 3), he pled guilty in federal court to misrepresenting the facts.

He told the court, “I was flying low over the water around the curves of Lake Keystone and struck power lines, causing the plane to crash into the lake. I believed if I told NTSB investigators the truth, their investigation would find that I was flying in an unsafe manner and I would have difficulty receiving insurance payments.”

Last December, an Oklahoma grand jury indicted Forbes on two counts of making false statements and one count of obstructing a government proceeding. The indictment cited statements Forbes made to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) between Aug. 27 and Sept. 30, 2022, and alleged false statements on Oct. 2, 2023, to a special agent of the Department of Transportation–Office of the Attorney General.

His passenger, 19-year-old Baily Nevill, told local news outlets that, before the flight, she had not received a safety briefing on how to unfasten her safety belt. Describing the accident, she said Forbes was demonstrating “water dancing” low over the surface of the lake before striking the power lines and crashing into the water. She said Forbes tried to pull her from her seat, but, “We were sideways, and the water was rising. We were in the middle of the lake. He was screaming at me. And once the water got above my chest, Bruce then decided to let go of me and swim away.”

Nevill was unsure how she finally freed herself from the belt and swam to the surface. Boaters rescued both occupants and brought them safely to shore.

The court has not set a sentencing date, and Forbes could be facing up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He declined to comment on the case to local news outlets.

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

62 COMMENTS

  1. What a “scum” to leave his ill informed passenger to nearly drown while he swims away. Then lie about the whole situation to keep insurance rates lower…..dirt ball.

    • To the Avweb staff:

      The ‘Flag’ button is too easy to hit accidently. Maybe change the color or move it or just make it say ‘Report’ and leave the work ‘comment’ out of it. Thank you 🙂

  2. I can’t help but wonder how ethical his airline employment record was. One might think that an individual with such background would have better flight discipline.

    What a way to spend your airline retirement, with the first 5 years behind bars.

    • No, it doesn’t. Murder is intentional. Suicide is intentional. “In the clear” is bullshit; he is responsible for crashing the plane.

  3. Nothing like flying with a nineteen year-old girl and water walking your biplane to make you feel mellow and worldly. Everything was OK until it wasn’t.

  4. So it was just an accident with a willing passenger.
    It’s a beautiful lake for such flights.

    • Are we blaming the girl now? Most of my passengers take it on faith I am flying the plane safely, it is fairly rare for them to say something like “Let’s do dangerous stuff and crash”. Even if they DID do that, I still wouldn’t swim off and leave them to drown or not depending on their own skills at getting out of an unfamiliar airplane.

      • It was an accident and anyone (even a girl) should be smart enough to unbuckle a seat belt. She did and all was well. Not seeing a problem from her point of view.

        • It was not an “accident”. Something that happens when flying in an unsafe manner is “on purpose”.

          • The pilot did not crash “on purpose”. If flying low over lakes is unsafe then so are light seaplanes.

        • Maybe you should be “smart enough” to not make caustic comments like that. On top of your very offensive personal remark, projecting your “not seeing a problem” is an insult of the first magnitude. No big deal because she didn’t die, right? What a clown.

          • No, calling someone a clown is caustic, me not knowing the full situation and not making a snap judgement is called being reserved

          • Arthur doesn’t see the problem here because he likes to fly in the same manner as Mr. Forbes.

        • AJ – “…anyone (even a girl) should be smart enough to unbuckle a seat belt.” Really? Latch and link? Cam lock? Push button? All while in the water and without any instruction? You gotta be kidding (even aside from the weird “even a girl” comment).

          Also, is there really no difference between flying land airplane an inch above water and flying a light seaplane an inch above water?

          • I did not bring up that the passenger was “a girl”; that was JoeDB. Power lines don’t differentiate between aircraft types so I do not either.

          • AJ – fair enough about the power lines. Meanwhile, do you think a non-pilot has the knowledge to release every kind of belt found in an antique airplane (without a briefing)?

          • R100RS, I have no idea what sort of harnesses of latches were retrofitted into the aft cabin of this aircraft. Obviously the passenger did release it in a timely manner and swam away unharmed. If it was a standard modern inertial system for the passenger area then yea, I can see not “briefing” it’s operation. Honestly the “seat belt briefing” on airlines is a bit demeaning here in the 21st century.

          • I called the passenger a willing passenger; JoeDB brought up that the passenger was “a girl” and he thought “I was blaming her”. So yea, the adult in the back seat should have been able to work a seat belt…. and did. It would be nice to have had the pilots testimony on actual events instead of a non-aviation passengers interpretation of feelings.

  5. I have been a non-advocate of this silly, irresponsible water walking and this is why I am not to mention why insurance rates are through the roof. Hope they didn’t pay his claim.

  6. Easy times soft men make. Forbes a prime example. In God’s Marine Corps where I grew up an abandoned teammate bought you a code red. Let’s hope the Shawshank crew shows good ol’ Bruce some real “water dancing”.

    • Are they known for wrecking biplanes? The ones I know personally seem pretty dedicated to not killing their passengers. Maybe you know different ones.

      • Ok, I’m wondering if ‘He swam away’ and ‘ I’m not sure how I got myself loose’ might add up to he actually did open the belt before backing off 🤔.

  7. Not related to the article but it’s really easy to mistakenly hit Report comment rather than Reply which in commarrison is much smaller type. Would AvWeb consider swapping those two fonts?

    Related to the article: I can’t imagine leaving a passenger stuck in the airplane to die. I. Just. Can’t.

  8. “His passenger, 19-year-old Baily Nevill, told local news outlets that, before the flight, she had not received a safety briefing on how to unfasten her safety belt.”

    Apparently she needed this instruction. I’ll bet a high percentage of private pilots instruct their passengers to keep their belts buckled. But I think most pilots believe adults in our society to know how to unbuckle them (unless it’s an unusual design). I wonder if the buckle was a standard automotive style or the universal airline style. Did the NTSB look at that?

    • So, it was just fine for this “pilot” to leave his passenger trapped in the airplane to drown in the middle of a lake? Passengers should always be given information about how to get out of the airplane after a crash, including how to release the restraints. This is particularly important in an over-water flight. Aircraft restraints are not like those in an auto and his passenger was a teenager. Failure to brief the passenger was just one small item in the list of this bozo’s violations. Yes, FAA enforcement can be a pain, but its efforts are a big factor in keeping pilots and passengers alive.

      • I said nothing of the sort. I would like to know what kind of buckle it was though, and why she had trouble with it. Did it jam? Did it require twisting instead of the button press automotive style she would probably do subconsciously? I think it’s important to understand. Even if briefed an unusual arrangement may be trouble in a panic. And yes, he should have gotten her out or died trying.

    • Doesn’t matter – always brief your pax on when how to use safety belt – when how to open doors and or kick break windows open – common sense not to assume anything – other briefing items rarely mentioned: secure all loose objects and keep personal ELTs and cel phones in your pocket – during off-airport landings these things become projectiles and can become unreachable in the event that one is trapped and needs to call for help

    • That doesn’t matter. EVERY preflight safety briefing SHOULD address the equipment on hand. That’s universal, and part of every flight training course.

  9. We find a surprisingly small number of villains in the aviation world, but this guy certainly qualifies.

  10. It’s the actions of a very small number of incredibly irresponsible pilots that tarnishes the reputations of all of us (including airline pilots). These actions not only increase our cost of flying but also increase the likelihood of greater government regulation and oversight.

    But as the PIC, to leave your passenger in a life threatening situation is unforgivable. I’m certainly glad she survived and hopefully testified to what actually led up to the crash. IMHO, this was anything but an “accident”.

  11. His actions from the start smell all wrong. How many times as a pilot has his passengers ON EVERY FLIGHT received a safety briefing for him to ignore this?

  12. This pilot is in deep trouble. The NTSB conviction is just the start.
    His trouble is just starting. The FAA will have something to say about this as well.
    According to passenger statements he didn’t give her the mandatory safety briefing I.A.W. 14CFR 91.107(a)(2). Also violation of 91.13 Careless or Reckless Operation. There were boaters on the lake (they came to their rescue) so also violation of 91.119 Minimum Safe Altitudes, paragraph (c). Also, bussing the lake would be a violation of the same regulation, see 91.119(a)
    I was warned by my floatplane instructor to never fly under or near wires. It’s illegal, unsafe, and stupid. This pilot provided the example of why wires are dangerous.
    Finally, I doubt his insurance company will renew his policy. But that will be the least of his problems…

    • Careful that foolish actions don’t result in knee-jerk responses:

      “There were boaters on the lake (they came to their rescue) so also violation of 91.119 Minimum Safe Altitudes, paragraph (c)”

      Just because there were “boaters on the lake” doesn’t mean paragraph (c) applies. The pilot could have been operating no closer than 500 feet to any person or vessel. Where paragraph (c) could apply, is “or structure”-if we describe a power line as a “structure”.

      “bussing the lake would be a violation of the same regulation, see 91.119(a)”

      Depends on if an available landing site could have be made if the power unit failed.

  13. Tragic for the plane anyway. In the late 90’s I was part of a small club that ended when one of the members water-danced himself to death in our 172. He was a psychologist and told the surviving passenger, while snickering, that he was about to do something really scary. That one was hard to get over. These two should count themselves very, very lucky.

  14. Is ‘water dancing’ the same as ‘water skiing’? Dragging the front wheels of a taildragger on top of the water?

  15. The military style belts which are often used in Stearman’s are different from airliner and most GA belts.
    I knew a airline pilot who was well known for water skiing with an airplane. The name would shock a lot of people.
    I watched a United pilot come within inches of crashing in the Oshkosh airshow. i was sitting at the base of the tower with a airline pilot friend an we were both shocked. I later crossed paths with that United pilot and was very unimpressed, especiially with his extreme arrogance.
    Another United pilot crashed the EAA Lockheed with some lady pilots onboard. The airplane was totaled but no life threatening injuries. I know in my heart exactly what happened but cannot prove it. The accident report grossly misrepresents what actually happened.
    I have done a lot of crazy things but never waterskied and do not intend to. I don’t do crazy things with passengers and have never been caught.
    Airline pilot at FL200 in a Pitts at night with no lights. ” I backfire the engine every few seconds so the other airplanes can see me”. That reminds me of several others which would lead to several others etc. Many are gone, none in aircraft accidents.

    • “I don’t do crazy things with passengers and have never been caught.”

      That’s . . . reassuring?

    • “ Airline pilot at FL200 in a Pitts at night with no lights. ” I backfire the engine every few seconds so the other airplanes can see me”.
      As a Pitts pilot, I hope you’re joking…
      What in the h@ll was he doing at FL200 in a Pitts? Did he file IFR in an airplane not remotely equipped for IFR?

  16. There is a lot more history about this accident and the individuals than that given in an NTSB report. I will say that having owned a Stearman the military style seatbelt and shoulder harness is far from being your standard aircraft or automobile seatbelt/shoulder harness. It requires direction fastening and unfastening. The design is robust and properly secured it keeps the pilot safe during acrobatics and more so in a crash. Egress is not as simple as pulling up on the latch. It takes a robust tug to unlatch it because it was designed to restrain the occupant during high G maneuvers. It is also likely the occupant and the seat will be secure in a crash even when the plane groundloops or crashes. If inverted it is very difficult to release. That being said given a detailed briefing the occupant can lift the latch with a deft tug. I used to tell children how to pull up on the latch and show me how to do it using two hands. If the passenger was incapable of releasing the latch, I would not fly him/her.

    There is a lot to regret regarding this preventable accident. Thankfully both of the occupants survived. It is vital that lessons be learned about judgment, decision making, and pilot operations to prevent this from happening again. Both occupants have learned more than any scenario based instruction or punishment can provide. Blame aside, it is important that these survivors pass on their experience and help prevent this from happening again.

    pps The comment section in AvWeb requires a POH to use it.

  17. Yeesh. He is lucky b/c they also dropped the “perving in federal airspace” charge but he has to do some time. I read the Nevill actually “forgave” him, but “hopes he learned a valuable lesson”. She proved to be the only grown up in that plane…

  18. The pilot leaving his passenger in a sinking airplane is just disgusting.

    Two people I knew died as the result of a 182 losing power shortly after takeoff from SUA. The pilot was trapped in the burning airplane, and the passenger, a Captain with the local sheriffs office, went back in to the fire to try to rescue him.
    Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful, and later died of the extensive burns he sustained from trying.
    RIP Captain S and Art.

    • The CRS I worked for off and on in that time frame did most, if not all of Art’s maintenance on his airplanes.
      I felt a guilty sense of relief when I found that the owner, not me, had overhauled the carburetor that caused the crash.

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