An ANN Special Report
It's a sad tale... a
tale that just cost Chelton Flight Systems about a million and
a half bucks.
It's a tale of three (former) friends and partners. They were
the 'three musketeers' of Sierra Flight Systems... a promising
little avionics development company that succeeded in building a
revolutionary GA EFIS system and setting standards for a new
generation of avionics. These three, Gordon Pratt, Rick Price, and
Nate Calvin, were the fair-haired boys of Boise, ID -- eventually
catching the attention of Chelton Avionics and selling their
company to a division of the aerospace juggernaut for millions.
The trio worked collectively on (at first) an experimental EFIS
system that combined synthetic vision technologies with
NASA-inspired 'Highway in the Sky' protocols and graphical terrain
awareness capabilities. Gordon was reportedly responsible for sales
and marketing, Rick was responsible for software development, and
Nate handled hardware development.
To all who knew them (including those of us at ANN), they were a
fun, dedicated lot; each properly deferential and appreciative
of the other, and acknowledging full credit for the success of
their little company to the collective efforts of their team.
That was... until Chelton bought Sierra Flight Systems on June
19, 2001. It was a great deal for the trio... Each got an equally
healthy check for their interest in Sierra, while the renamed
"Chelton Flight Systems' appointed Gordon Pratt (shown below) as
President, Rick Price as VP-Software, and Nate Calvin became
The new Chelton acquisition grew quickly, hiring new staff, and
preparing their product line for serious GA serial production and
the necessary certifications to see it all through. Among the new
staffers added to the CFS family were Barry Boepple who joined CFS
in a sales and marketing capacity, and former Lancair staffer Grant
Bailey, who joined Barry in sales and marketing.
Things were looking good, (actually, GREAT), for all
concerned... until October 15th of 2002. That day, speeding along
in a leased Lancair IV-P demo plane, Bailey, Boepple and Calvin
came to grief while attempting a landing on a small private
Idaho airstrip, a short asphalt runway measuring 2,206 feet in
length and 40 feet in width.
The Northern Idaho accident resulted in the deaths of Grant and
Barry, while Nate barely survived... with extensive injuries
suffered when he was ejected from the aircraft, post-impact. Grant
Bailey was P-I-C, Nate was riding shotgun on the right, and Barry
was sitting in the back. The NTSB description of the accident
states that, "The 1,915 hour commercial pilot, who had never landed
at the destination and who had more than 100 hours in make/model,
over flew the destination landing site in the Lancair IV aircraft.
While descending northbound overhead the 2,206 foot long, 40 foot
wide unmarked, asphalt runway he commenced a left spiraling descent
to land on runway 07. On short final the aircraft's Electronic
Flight Information System recorded the pilot pitching the
aircraft's nose up to nearly +14 degrees and the aircraft's
airspeed began to rapidly bleed off making it difficult for both
front seat occupants to ascertain runway alignment. The aircraft
then landed very hard and far right of centerline with the left
wheel within 3 feet of the south edge of the pavement and the right
wheel on down sloping gravel. The aircraft then veered further
right off the runway as the pilot applied power for a go-around,
with the aircraft eventually impacting conifer trees growing 30
feet south of the runway's edge."
The impact was devastating... "The aircraft was observed having
come to rest approximately 890 feet beyond the threshold end of the
runway and approximately 35 feet south of the edge of the runway.
Both wings had separated from the fuselage and the fuselage
separated from the empennage just aft of the cabin. The nose
landing gear was observed in a near fully extended position. The
left main gear had separated from the fuselage and the right main
landing gear was observed within its wheel well. The engine/cabin
came to rest in an inverted position. There was no post-crash
It was a tragedy of incredible proportions. Having known all
three on board, it had to have been a blow to all concerned...
personally and professionally. But... at least one valued fellow
survived when the results could easily have been fatal to all.
Nate faced a difficult recovery. He had a severe leg injury, and
worse, a significant head injury. The next couple of weeks were
painful, eased only by pain medication and some understandable
counseling needed to deal with the traumatic effects of an
Barely two weeks after Nate survived the crash, he was summoned
to CFS offices on October 31st, 2002, and (according to court
records and an interview with Calvin's counsel Raymond Powers),
told by Chelton's Charles Stuff (who had been involved in the
initial buyout of Sierra) that they wanted him to resign...
Nate was heavily medicated, a situation reportedly known to all
involved (and indeed, it would be hard to understand how they
wouldn't know). The pressure was enormous and Stuff reportedly
threatened Calvin with negative consequences (financial and
professional) if he didn't resign immediately. Stuff listed a
number of alleged shortcomings and accusations that he used
to justify Calvin's dismissal... but Calvin, once again, was
heavily medicated, suffering from stress, recovering from massive
physical trauma... and everyone present would have been
hard-pressed to miss such detail. More important, Calvin's
employment contract set forth a documented protocol for termination
and a resolution program by which he might cure whatever ills might
be presented. This contracted program appears to have been ignored
on October 31st, and with the understanding that severe
repercussions might result if Nate did not resign, Calvin was
allegedly pressured into a signing a short resignation letter, and
summarily shown the door.
Chelton seemed to have taken a scorched earth approach to
Calvin... even reportedly editing older archived press
releases to delete a number of references to his name and
participation in the founding of the company. It seemed nasty,
certainly heartless, a mite vindictive... and legally
As Nate tried to put his life together and the fog of the
medication and trauma gave way to some understanding of the mess he
was in, he sought legal counseling and representation. Local
attorney Raymond Powers took over the case, filing an aggressive
action against CFS for Breach of Contract, Wrongful Discharge,
Breach of the Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing, Negligent
and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, and
Retaliation/Violation of Public Policy.
The trial began on May 23rd, 2005, in the 4th District Court of
Idaho in Boise, Idaho. CFS appeared to argue that Nate had been
asked to resign as a result of poor job performance and that
their actions were unrelated to the accident that nearly killed
Nate and took the lives of two his co-workers. Over the course of
two and a half weeks, a number of witnesses and some intriguing
dialogue, the jury found that CFS did "commit a material breach of
their employment contract with Mr. Calvin." It also found that in
light of the damage suffered by Mr. Calvin "as a result of the
breach of the employment contract by the defendants," a financial
award totaling $471,167 (of which $533.5K was mitigated)
was justified. While the jury did not find that CFS "intentionally"
inflicted emotional distress on Calvin, they did find that there
was negligence in that regard... for which CFS was
ordered to pay an additional $1,000,000.
It was a stunning victory for Calvin... but a bizarre one
against a little company that once presented itself as an
honorable, tight-knit, group of dedicated friends who were as
personally committed to their mutual success as they were,
professionally. In the course of the investigation and jury trial,
it seemed that the certain parties at CFS blamed Calvin, in part or
in whole, for the accident that claimed Bailey and Boepple... even
though he was not P-I-C and the P-I-C flying (who was an excellent
stick, by the way) was clearly more experienced with the Lancair
IV-P to begin with. It was puzzling... and tragic... both for the
losses of two fine members of the Chelton Flight Systems team as
well as for the protracted suffering forced upon and endured
by Nate Calvin.
Note: Chelton Flight Systems was contacted to
provide information for this report... and refused. Attorney
Raymond Powers was interviewed and court records inspected for much
of the detail reported herein.