Chelsea Brittney Infanger, 30, of Salmon, was killed in a plane crash on April 13, 2022. Her parents blame the city of Burley, Gem State Processing in Heyburn for her death. | Photo obtained from court documents
IDAHO FALLS – The parents of a pilot killed in a plane crash last year say the city of Burley, an Idaho food processing plant and other entities are responsible for their daughter’s death, and now they’re suing.
In a 38-page lawsuit filed on June 22, Jim and Sharon Infanger of Salmon say the crash could have been avoided if it weren’t for the placement of multiple smokestacks at the Gem State potato processing plant, which is adjacent to the Burley J.R. Simplot Airport. The city owns the property where the smokestacks are. The stacks reportedly pose a safety hazard to pilots because they emit exhaust that reduces visibility for approaching aircraft.
Despite this, court documents say the towers were built without the city’s approval, and no paperwork had been submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration.
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In court documents, an unnamed witness alleges to have seen the crash. In April 2022, 30-year-old Brittney Infanger approached the runway and allegedly hit a wall of steam “produced from a set of six smokestacks on the roof of the Gem State Processing Plant.”
Though her parents say she was an experienced pilot who was familiar with the surroundings at the Burley airport, Brittney crashed her single-engine Cessna 208B plane into the processing plant and died.
“The witness heard the engine increase in sound and saw the nose of the aircraft lift shortly before the airplane struck the smokestack and crashed to the rooftop,” the lawsuit says.
Aircraft on roof of Gem State Processing showing exhaust stack and the steam cloud. | Taken from court documents
The Infangers allege the city was aware of the safety risks the smokestacks created but did nothing to prevent their placement or construction. The couple blames the city and several government agencies, including the Idaho Department of Transportation and the Division of Aeronautics, for their “bureaucratic disregard, inaction and recklessness.” They allege Gem State Processing, the city of Burley and its real estate partner were negligent and demonstrated “corporate indifference” on the matter.
“The city of Burley placed the economic interest of its role as a landlord above the safety of its pilots using its airport,” the Infangers say in court documents.
Gem State Processing and the city responded to the lawsuit several weeks ago denying the allegations. Gem State Processing has not responded to a request for comment. Burley city officials declined to comment on the case, saying they’re “in the process of going through discovery and providing documents” to the court.
A deeper look at the case
The lease agreement between Gem State and the city dates back to August 2004, according to court documents. By 2010, Gem State had allegedly built multiple towers on the property without giving any advanced notice.
Court records show that in 2013, the city of Burley determined the smokestacks posed a safety hazard, and the airport needed to be relocated. The city recommended closing the airport because the cost of building a new one was too high. Two potential sites were identified in early 2016.
On March 11, 2016, the lawsuit says Airport Manager Kevin Gebhart learned six additional stacks were being added at the Gem State plant. No paperwork had been submitted to the FAA for the new or previous stacks.
Gebhart reached out to the FAA and the city, and Burley City Manager Mark Mitton replied to airport personnel several days later.
“We did not know that Gem State had any plans to install additional stacks at their facility in Heyburn. We were advised last week of what was happening. Gem State did not advise the city of Burley or Heyburn or Minidoka Counties of their plans,” Mitton replied, according to court documents.
But Jack Hunsaker, president of the Burley Airport User’s Association, apparently didn’t believe Mitton. He said the city had a “fiduciary responsibility” to protect the airport from encroachments, and the city violated that.
“It appears to be a breach of tremendous proportions of the fiduciary responsibility and a clear lack of desire to even minimally maintain the current airport until a suitable replacement is functional,” Hunsaker wrote.
Over the next month, Gem State Processing allegedly filed the necessary paperwork. The FAA determined the new stacks encroached on the runway. Court records indicate multiple pilots sent letters to the city saying the smokestacks “interfere with approaches” and “reduce visibility” at the airport.
Photo taken from the departure end of Runway 02 at Burley Airport, looking northeast at the Gem State Processing Plant and its steam stacks. | Taken from court documents
After losing federal funding for the airport between 2017 and 2018, city officials submitted changes to its proposed layout for a new airport.
The project stalled for the next three years, according to court records.
The current airport was rededicated in 2022 and named the J.R. Simplot Airport, several months before the plane crash that killed Brittney.
The Infangers are hoping the city is forced to either make the airport safe or close it down. They’re seeking “the maximum recovery of damages under applicable Idaho … law” and “a trial by jury on all contested issues.”
Ada County District Judge Jonathan Medema recently denied a motion from the defendants to hold the trial in Heyburn or Burley. A hearing will be held Monday to determine a trial date.
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