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Police & Fire

Co-pilot admits massive fraud with celebrity jet that crashed at Teterboro

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

A co-pilot for a now-defunct company whose jet crashed on takeoff from Teterboro Airport admitted that he doctored safety and compliance records to conceal illegal charter flights carrying, among others, Beyonce, Jay Z, and Snoop Dogg.

Francis Vieira, 60, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., now stands ready to testify against four alleged co-conspirators of Platinum Jet Management, LLC. A trial is set to begin Oct. 12 in Newark.

Viera told U.S. District Court Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh on Monday that Platinum customers didn’t know the group had schemed to defraud them and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Although Platinum Jet didn’t have the necessary licenses, charter flights zipped in and out of Teterboro — until the day in February 2005 when a company jet carrying a group of investment bankers failed to get off the ground, skidded across Route 46 and smashed into a furniture warehouse on the other side.

Vieira admitted that he altered safety records for the jet that crashed at Teterboro by changing the weight and center of gravity listings — more than two dozen times. He also hid the fact that the captain wasn’t fit to fly under federal regulations, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott B. McBride, the lead prosecutor in the case.

Four of Vieira’s co-defendants – including company owners Michael and Paul Brassington, as well as John Kimberling, the pilot of the Teterboro flight that crashed – are scheduled for trial Cavanaugh’s courtroom.

A few others involved already have pleaded guilty for their roles in the scam. They include Joseph Singh, the former director of charters for Platinum Jet, and co-founder Andre Budhan.

Like Vieira, they, too, are expected to testify — all in exchange for leniency when Cavanaugh sentences them.

Those sentencings have been indefinitely postponed with the trial pending.

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman credited special agents of the Department of Transportation for a massive investigation that led to the pleas.

Kimberling was the pilot in February 2005, when the ill-fated Teterboro plane taxied onto the tarmac and then headed north along the runway, picking up speed as it went.

As it hit 135 knots, Kimberling inexplicably chose to abort the takeoff. By that point, however, the speed had reached 160 knots and there was no slowing the aircraft down.

The twinjet blew through an airport fence and careened across the busy highway, hitting two people in a car. Then it smashed into a clothing factory warehouse and burst into flames.

Five of the eight passengers along with a cabin aide got out with little more than scraches. The pilot, another passenger and the two people in the car were taken to nearby hospitals.

Federal investigators soon found that Platinum had violated regulations on nearly 50 passenger-carrying flights.

The violations quickly mounted.

Perhaps the most dangerous of all, McBride said, was Platinum Jet’s “dangerous and fraudulent” practice of “tankering,” which he said contributed to the Teterboro crash by shifting the aircraft’s center of gravity too far forward.

“Tankering” is an illegal way of cutting costs by taking advantage of less expensive fuel contracts, then overfueling the tanks to the extent that the center of gravity moves too far forward.

In addition to the criminal charges, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based charter operator also has been fined more than $1.86 million.

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