Flight instructor written up twice by federal regulators months before fatal crash in San Antonio

Fellow instructors, former students slam FAA’s decision to not ground Robert Perguson

Records show flight instructor was sanctioned twice by FAA for violating flight rules and endangering the safety of others

SAN ANTONIO – A San Antonio pilot who was among three killed after his plane crashed near Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio this summer had twice been sanctioned by the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) months before the fatal wreck, according to records obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders.

In both instances, however, FAA investigators allowed Robert Perguson to continue flying and operating his flight school, records show.

Perguson, 28, and passenger Zachary Collins, 33, died last month after both spent nearly three weeks at a San Antonio military burn center. The third person in Perguson’s single-engine Piper Cherokee, 55-year-old Simon Willett, died at the scene of the July 25 crash in the 9400 block of Espada Road.

Pilot, second passenger die weeks after South Side plane crash

Willett’s widow, Emelie Willett, told KSAT last month that her husband and Collins were taking part in a discovery flight with Perguson to help determine if they wanted to pursue flying lessons.

“They said the engine was having issues keeping altitude, and the second (possible cause of the crash) could have been an overweight issue,” said Emelie Willett, referring to what investigators told her shortly after the crash. The plane crashed shortly after taking off.

A preliminary report released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) provided few details about what may have contributed to the accident.

The August 21 report states that the airplane climbed out “shallower than normal” and “wobbled” before descending into the ground and catching fire.

It could be another year or longer before the NTSB releases its full report and determines an official cause of the crash.

Pictures show the burned wreckage of the Piper Cherokee after crashing July 25, 2020. (KSAT)

Photos provided by the San Antonio Fire Department’s Public Information Office showed the heavily charred wreckage in the backyard of a home south of Stinson.

Prior FAA complaints

Perguson, who, according to public records, had opened Valkyrie Aviation last year and built up a fleet of four training airplanes, was the subject of at least two separate complaints made to the FAA.

One of the complaints, filed last year by a flight instructor based at Bulverde Airpark, accused Perguson of taxiing his plane on the runway there as the instructor and a student were on final approach to land.

“He decided to go ahead and ignore my calls and take the runway and back taxi, which caused me to have to do a go-around,” said instructor Matt Harris, who added that he and Perguson had just spoken to one another via flight radio.

“As soon as I saw him pull out, I didn’t have enough room or enough time to land,” said Harris, who described adding power to his plane in order to avoid colliding with Perguson’s aircraft.

In April, an FAA official confirmed via email to Harris that its San Antonio Flight Standards District Office had completed its investigation of the incident and determined “a violation of an order, regulation or standard” related to Perguson’s operation of an aircraft had taken place.

The email stated that appropriate action was taken, but did not specify what that action was.

Harris said the flight school that employs him also briefly employed Perguson, before deciding it was not a good fit.

“We weren’t satisfied with the quality he was doing, so we found it best to part ways with him,” said Harris, who added that Perguson’s tenure lasted about two weeks.

Harris, and a former student of Perguson’s, who asked that he not be identified in this story, said Perguson was providing spin training to beginner students in a plane that was not rated for that type of maneuver.

A second, wider-reaching complaint was filed with the FAA against Perguson in November.

In that complaint, filed by a former student of his, Perguson was accused of training the woman to be a certified flight instructor (CFI) even though he had not held his own CFI certificate at least two years, a federal requirement.

A former student filed an FAA complaint against Robert Perguson and Valkyrie Aviation. (KSAT)

The complaint also stated that Perguson told the instructee to train other students, even though she was not properly rated to do so.

In one text message reviewed by the Defenders, Perguson told the woman last September, “I need you to fly with (redacted) I need him proficient he’s very rusty can you teach him how to fly again?”

The student eventually responded via text message that she was not comfortable flying with the other person.

The former student concluded her complaint by stating that Perguson’s “standard of excellence and adherence to the rules is questionable. Please look into this flight school’s operations before we have a mishap.”

FAA investigators substantiated the portions of her complaint related to Perguson providing CFI training prior to having his own flight instructor certificate longer than 24 calendar months.

As the student pointed out, Perguson’s infraction meant the CFI training she received from him could not be counted toward her certificate.

FAA investigators could not substantiate portions of her complaint that Perguson told her to train other students, records show.

FAA officials opted to give Perguson “compliance actions” instead of revoking or temporarily suspending his certificates, an agency spokesperson confirmed.

These compliance actions typically include administrative sanctions such as counseling or a warning letter, a spokesperson for the FAA’s Southwest Region, which includes Texas, confirmed via email late last month.

According to the FAA’s website, its compliance program focuses on non-enforcement methods to correct unintentional infractions or noncompliance with the rules and does not officially constitute an FAA violation.

FAA officials, however, did not provide the specific compliance actions given to Perguson following his two cases.

What other former students say

Court records show at the time of his death, Perguson was a defendant in three pending lawsuits filed in Bexar County Justice of the Peace Precinct 4.

One of the suits involved a landlord-tenant dispute in which Perguson was accused of not returning a man’s security deposit after he had moved out of Perguson’s property.

The two other suits, however, involve allegations that Perguson accepted funds from students at his flight school then failed to return those funds after not providing promised training.

The plaintiff in one case, who asked that he not be identified, said he used a bonus from an airline that had hired him along with a credit card advance to pay Perguson for multi-engine aircraft training only to later find out that Perguson did not have a multi-engine aircraft in his fleet.

The suit claims the former student was able to recover a portion of his payments but was still owed more than $4,000 from Perguson.

The former student also filed a theft complaint with the San Antonio Police Department against Perguson in August 2019 but was told it was a civil matter.

Reached by telephone last month, the man told the Defenders he also witnessed Perguson install an instrument landing antenna on one of his planes even though he was not a certified aircraft mechanic permitted to do that type of work.

The third lawsuit, filed by the same woman who reported Perguson to the FAA in November, accused him of breaching their contract for flight training and asked the court to award her more than $9,700.

Records show in June 2019 she also filed a theft report with SAPD against Perguson.

The former student also filed consumer complaints against Perguson with the Federal Trade Commission and the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Reached by telephone in recent weeks, six other former students told the Defenders they previously expressed concerns, many of them when contacted by the FAA, about Perguson’s flying and aircraft maintenance habits.

Multiple students, who asked that they not be identified since they are still pursuing flying lessons locally, said Perguson would put water in the fuel tanks of his planes during preflight checks, even though pilots typically do the opposite, removing water and other contaminants prior to flying.

Another student said she suffered from severe stress after flying with Perguson and that after she provided FAA investigators information about her experiences with him, they informed her that he had not filled out her flight logbook properly.

The woman said she changed flight schools early this year.

Another student said he repeatedly witnessed Perguson perform work on his planes even though he was not certified to do so.

Another former student said while he was flying back from Austin with Perguson, the instructor flew too close to a home and was later informed by air traffic controllers that he had violated Class C airspace.

The students criticized the FAA for not only refusing to ground Perguson, but for failing to release what sanctions he was given after the two investigations were completed.

Two former students reached by the Defenders said they had positive experiences flying with Perguson.

Valkyrie Aviation was still in operation when the Defenders stopped by for comment last month.

An instructor working with students promised to pass along our request for comment to management, but so far, the Defenders have not heard back.

This Cessna 150 parked on the ramp at Stinson Municipal Airport late last month is registered to Robert Perguson. (KSAT)

One of the school’s airplanes, a Cessna 150, was parked on the ramp at Stinson as recently as last week.

Emelie Willett, who sat down with KSAT for an interview early last month, declined a request for a follow-up interview and referred our questions to a San Antonio attorney retained by the family.

Reached by telephone, the attorney said they had also engaged the services of a prominent Austin-based attorney who is well versed in aviation law and litigation.

“Unsafe pilots are one thing, but to be an unsafe instructor and teaching that to students that are inexperienced and are trying to learn how to fly the plane, they shouldn’t be flying with people that are that unsafe and putting them in a dangerous situation,” said Harris, the flight instructor. “Someone that has that much disregard for safety shouldn’t be flying, period.”

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy-nominated photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.