His uncle's death in 2013 plane crash sent him looking for answers

Published: Sep. 16, 2016 at 6:14 PM PDT
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May 16, 2013, businessman Bob Richardson left the South Bay headed for Reno flying his twin engine Cessna 421. Just east of Boca Reservoir he hits thunderstorms and trouble. Richardson told an air traffic controller he was in a spin.

Witnesses at the reservoir report an uneven sound from the aircraft's engines, then a crash and fire. The plane had slammed into a rugged ridge near the summit of Verdi peak, the wreckage scattered.

His death was a heavy blow to his family.

"It was an awful shock of course," remembers his nephew Greg Berkin. "He was just a wonderful guy."

Richardson had been a Vietnam veteran, an experienced pilot. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated. Its conclusion? Loss of control.

But what had happened to cause an apparent spin remained unanswered.

So Berkin, also a pilot and a software engineer, literally went back to school, enrolling in USC's School of Aviation Safety and bringing the wreckage of his uncle's plane with him. He gathered and analyzed all available data, applied it to an animation of the flight, but inevitably it wasn't enough.

"So my thought was, let's see if we can turn this tragedy and this investigation into something positive that can help other pilots.

Usually the first question I get asked when I mention that my uncle was killed in a plane crash is 'What did the black box say?' And usually the answer is there is no black box."

The device is required in commercial aircraft, but is rare in general aviation.

Shortly before the crash his uncle had installed a piece of equipment called an Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast or ADSP in his aircraft. It tracks the location of an airplane broadcasting it to others.

By 2020, it will be required in all private aircraft. What if, he thought, a black box could be connected to do much more, monitoring and sending data from the aircraft, the weather it was experiencing, even the pilot himself.

If such equipment had been installed in Richardson's aircraft, Berkin would have many of the answers he sought.

"We'd know much more accurately what happened."

So, that's what he's been developing. He's worked up a prototype design and is now looking for partners to develop and put it into production.

It has been, he says, a labor of love, but he thinks his uncle would approve.

"He was all about helping fellow engineers, fellow pilots, fellow entrepreneurs to start businesses. So, I think he would have loved this. It would have been very, very meaningful to him."