Feds: Cocaine a factor in Round Lake pilot's fatal 2014 crash
Round Lake pilot Jeffrey Bronken's cocaine use was a contributing factor when he ran out of fuel and crashed near Tampa-St. Petersburg, killing himself and his daughter and injuring her friend two years ago, federal documents show.
"The FAA forbids the use of substances that could lead to impairment," Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said.
Jeffrey Bronken, 53, was killed early in the morning of March 22, 2014, when the single-engine Piper PA-28-181 aircraft he was piloting crashed after running out of fuel a few miles north of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport in Florida. Bronken's 15-year-old daughter, Katherine, who attended Grant Community High School in Fox Lake, died from injuries four days later.
Bronken's inadequate fuel planning, which resulted in a total loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion, led to the crash, according to a National Transportation Safety Board probable cause report. The NTSB report states "the pilot's impairment due to cocaine use" contributed to the crash.
Disappointment in the NTSB report was reflected in a statement to the Daily Herald issued by Bronken family attorney Theodore Karavidas of Barrington. Karavidas has represented Bronken's widow and Katherine's mother, Susan, in matters.
"The family is further saddened by the conclusion of the NTSB that Jeff's judgment was impaired to any degree," the statement reads. "Jeff refueled in Nashville and was informed upon departure that he had enough fuel for 4 hours, 35 minutes of flight time. At the 4 hour 21 minute mark, he realized as he approached his destination airport that a highway landing was required.
"The blood level of cocaine reported by the NTSB was below the threshold needed to produce impairment or physiological effects. The family is disappointed by the questionable conclusion of the NTSB and asks the public to respect their privacy in this time of grief."
Katherine Bronken's friend, Keyana Linbo, survived spinal and other serious injuries in the crash. Linbo attends Grant High, where she's on the girls varsity basketball team.
Linbo's family learned of the NTSB report shortly after it was filed in late October, said their attorney, Thomas Lake of Libertyville.
"The NTSB concluded, generally, that there was impairment from cocaine use, along with inadequate fuel planning," Lake said. "I think the inadequate fuel planning was pretty obvious, but the impairment from cocaine use was not. It was surprising and very upsetting to the family."
NTSB officials used data from various sources for the crash findings, according to the probable cause report.
Jeffrey Bronken took off for Florida from Campbell Airport in Round Lake Park about 6:30 p.m. March 21, 2014. His intended destination of St. Petersburg-Clearwater is a full-service airport with commercial passenger service, cargo, military and general aviation operations.
Investigators found Bronken flew from Campbell Airport to John C. Tune Airport in Nashville, Tennessee, to refuel at 11:38 p.m. March 21, 2014. He departed Nashville for the final leg to Florida.
During the night cross-country flight, Bronken's plane had been airborne for 4 hours, 21 minutes and about 6 miles from his destination when he reported a fuel emergency to air traffic control about 4 a.m., according to the NTSB report.
Bronken stated he planned to land on a highway, but collided with 160-foot-tall power lines that crossed the road, the NTSB found. The report says an examination of the wreckage did not reveal any mechanical malfunctions of the airframe or engine before impact, and "only a few ounces of fuel" were recovered from the crash site.
"The pilot's toxicology results were positive for cocaine," according to the NTSB, "and impairment from cocaine likely affected his preflight fuel planning abilities and en route fuel management."
Toxicology testing was performed by the FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City. Cocaine was detected in Bronken's cavity blood, urine and liver, according to the report.
About 400 neighbors, friends and family gathered at a park in Round Lake for a candlelight vigil March 30, 2014, to remember the lives of Jeffrey and Katherine Bronken.
Jeffrey Bronken was remembered for a sense of humor and patience while coaching basketball at St. Bede School in Ingleside and other youth teams. Family friends said he was a conscientious veteran pilot.
Linbo's family filed a claim against Bronken's estate and received a $100,000 out-of-court settlement in November, Lake said. He said the NTSB report was not part of the litigation.
"Keyana is a very fortunate, a very resilient individual," Lake said. "And, based on the circumstances, very lucky."