In a tragic incident on the morning of May 10, 2023, a Learjet 36A, operated by Phoenix Air Group LLC of Cartersville, Georgia, crashed off the coast of San Clemente Island, California. The crash resulted in the unfortunate death of three onboard – two pilots and a passenger.

Photo Courtesy of Angel Natal –

The aircraft, bearing the callsign FENIX01, was involved in an operation with the US Navy. It had taken off from Port Hueneme-Point Mugu NAS (NTD/KNTD), California, and lost contact with air traffic control approximately a mile from San Clemente Island. In response to the accident, Phoenix Air Group dispatched a second aircraft, FENIX02, to survey the last known location of the downed Learjet. This rescue mission was soon joined by another aircraft N362BM and a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from San Diego.

Data from the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) revealed a sharp descent from the aircraft after it experienced a swift change in ground speed at an altitude of 15,000 feet. The final ADS-B return registered the aircraft at 1100 feet, indicating a deceleration from 382 knots to 260 knots during the descent.

Photo Courtesy of Patrick Weis –

Known as a ‘gray bird’ by Phoenix Air Group, the Learjet 36A is a highly modified aircraft equipped with aerial target towing capabilities. These modifications include the addition of a Meggitt Defense Systems RM-30 two-way Tow Reel, controlled by an onboard electronics warfare officer.

Phoenix Air Group stated that the ill-fated Learjet was part of a two-plane operation involved in a Navy training exercise operating within a military-restricted area. The other aircraft involved in the exercise returned safely.

Flight Profile of FENIX01 profile the day prior to the accident

The day preceding the accident, the same Learjet was observed conducting swift, low passes over what is presumed to be Navy ships off the California coast as part of its training exercises.

Terminal Approach Chart for the area of the accident. The aircraft was operating airspace restricted for Military operations.

Unconfirmed reports indicate the crew encountered an unexpected in-flight emergency, prompting them to attempt a landing at San Clemente Island NALF (KNUC), situated on the opposite side of the island. Unfortunately, the crew lost control of the aircraft, and the wreckage was eventually located on May 11, 2023.

The deceased have been identified as Captain Eric Tatman, 1st Officer Spencer Geerlings, and Systems Specialist Shane Garner.  Our deepest condolences go out to their families.

Aircraft accidents involving the U.S. military and civilian contractors give rise to very complicated legal issues, including application of maritime law, government claims statutes (such as the Suits in Admiralty Act), fighting the Navy for release of accident and contract operation information. They may also involve  complex accident investigations with limited evidence.

Aviation Law Group has a history of representing employees of civilian contractors who perish in aircraft accidents. Most recently ALG is working on a case where 4 employees of a civilian contractor died in a helicopter accident in Kauai. That helicopter was operating to pick up target torpedoes that were being used in combat simulation by the US Navy. ALG also represented numerous passenger families in the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 (MD-83) accident which occurred near the Channel Islands off Point Magu, California, in January of 2000.

Robert Hedrick of Aviation Law Group is a licensed attorney in California state and federal courts and has handled more than 75 cases in California.

Photo of accident aircraft courtesy of Paul Hogenboom: