Newly released documents show the Federal Aviation Administration found Newport Mayor Dean Sawyer was “careless and reckless” and committed seven violations of air-safety regulations when he took two people on a whale-watching flight in 2019, then crash-landed on the beach, seriously injuring one passenger.
That passenger, Deborah Reasoner, 62, of Molalla, said in a recent interview that she met Sawyer through a friend the day before Sawyer took her and her then-7-year-old son — her biological grandson, Jase, whom she adopted — on a sightseeing flight. She spent 17 days in a Portland trauma unit after the plane crashed on the beach near the north jetty of Yaquina Bay in Newport.
Reasoner suffered a traumatic brain injury and multiple fractures. She underwent multiple surgeries, including removal of all her bottom teeth. The wreck fractured her right upper arm bone, which is now held together by a 10-inch plate and 12 screws. She fractured her left leg’s calf bone, tore numerous muscles and ligaments, and damaged nerves in her limbs. She still awaits shoulder and knee surgery.
“I spent months not being able to dress myself or pull down my pants to use the bathroom,” Reasoner said. “I cannot style my hair or do my makeup or do most of the normal things a mom should be able to do for herself and child. For the first six months, I could not form my words or my thoughts properly due to the traumatic brain injury. I still experience issues with this. The doctor tells me it may always be this way.”
The News-Times first reported early last month that the FAA suspended Sawyer’s pilot certificate for 200 days because of violations found by crash investigators. On March 10, the newspaper made a Freedom of Information Act request to the FAA seeking its investigative file on the July 8, 2019 crash. The agency provided 273 pages of moderately redacted documents to the News-Times late last week.
The records show the FAA cited Sawyer, a retired police officer who was first elected Newport’s mayor in 2018 and was re-elected in 2020, for seven violations of federal regulations, including a prohibition on operating an aircraft “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.”
Sawyer was also cited for operating an aircraft not in airworthy condition, not obtaining the legally required annual aircraft inspection in four years, not undergoing the biennial flight review by a certified observer, an aircraft registration that expired in 2012, and not renewing his medical certificate since 2006.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the crash found the probable cause was the pilot’s failure to ensure the plane had sufficient fuel, leading to engine failure when the fuel ran out.
Sawyer did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the newly released documents and the FAA’s previously unreported allegation that he’d committed seven violations of federal regulations and acted carelessly and recklessly. He previously pointed to radio traffic in which first responders reported smelling gas at the crash scene. He said he was sure he had enough fuel for the trip when he left Newport Airport and argued that the craft’s fuel system was too damaged in the wreck for the NTSB to make a determination.
According to a statement of basis for enforcement action in the newly released records, the mayor operated his Cessna “in a manner that resulted in an accident.”
The FAA records show that Sawyer offered to surrender his pilot certificate, but the FAA refused, calling it an attempt “to avoid certificate action or legal enforcement action.” The agency later proposed a 310-day suspension.
The records show Sawyer entered a settlement with the FAA in June 2020, in which he agreed to a 200-day suspension without the right to appeal. An FAA spokesperson wrongly said last month that the mayor’s suspension began Jan. 8, 2021. The new records show the suspension expired on that date, and began June 23, 2020. The agency returned Sawyer’s license Jan. 6 and restored his flying privileges two days later, though the mayor said in March he still had not updated his medical certificate he needs to legally fly.
Reasoner said that on the day of the flight, everything seemed fine until the mayor took a sharp bank to the left to head back toward the airport, turning the craft on its side. A few moments later, the engine began to surge and sputter, and she said Sawyer worked frantically at the controls while repeatedly telling her to prepare for a crash.
“I yelled, ‘How do you prepare for a crash?’” Reasoner said. “I yelled, ‘My son is on this plane, you cannot crash.’ … I then tried to figure out how to get into the back seat with my child so I could hold him in my arms, but there was not enough room, and so I just turned around and held him up against the back of my seat.”
She covered his eyes and told him that she loved him, asked God to protect them and, as she turned one last time to see how close they were to the ground, the plane crashed on the side where Reasoner sat, partially ejecting her with her feet still in the aircraft.
She was knocked cold by the impact and remembers just bits and pieces about the following hours, such as a crowd around the airplane. (According to an investigator’s report, the mayor told the investigator that within minutes of the crash, there were “a bunch of stupid Samaritans at the aircraft.”). She also recalls pain when a doctor at the hospital in Newport manipulated a dislocated limb before she was taken by helicopter to a Portland hospital.
Reasoner filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against Sawyer the week after the crash. She said her lawyer told her the pilot’s insurance would not pay a claim, and the attorney eventually began pressuring her to settle.
At one point in negotiations, the attorney told her Sawyer asked that she pay half the fee for storing his wrecked airplane, which the lawyer said she “obviously” wouldn’t do.
Reasoner cannot disclose the amount paid in the March 2020 settlement with Sawyer, but called it a joke and said she felt bullied into accepting it. “After I had to pay my medical expenses and lawyer and everyone I owed, I ended up with almost nothing. Yet I will live with these injuries and hardships for the rest of my life,” Reasoner said.
The financial impact of her trauma lingers along with physical pain. For a long while she was unable to work at all, and her activity is still limited. Her credit score dropped 300 points since the crash, and she said she is in danger of losing her home.
But worst, Reasoner said, are emotional impacts on her and her now 9-year-old child. Jase suffered abrasions and was discharged from the hospital in Newport the day of the crash. Reasoner said he spent the next few days at Sawyer’s home with the friend that introduced them, during which he told her he cried for her.
“He now suffers from severe separation anxiety, and panics when he cannot see me,” she said. “He fears riding in cars, afraid we will crash. When he sees a plane, he panics. He also has anger issues” toward Sawyer.
Paul Bertorelli, an aviation expert, flight instructor and editor at large for aviation news site AVweb.com, produces videos examining best practices and real world scenarios, and in “Emergency Landing: Beach or Breakers," he addresses Sawyer’s crash without naming the pilot.
Framed by a photo of Sawyer’s crashed Cessna, Bertorelli mentions the pilot’s delinquencies in certification and inspection. (He told the News-Times, “It’s one thing to go for a few months, but a few years — that’s really willful neglect.”)
He notes in the video that the “investigation found not a drop of fuel in the airplane, the pilot apparently having run out of gas,” and asks, “was this related to the other fairly big things the pilot had just skipped over? Who knows? But the opposite of consciousness of safety is complacence, and if you suffer from that, you could wind up on a beach with no beer, no umbrella, no towel, but a broken airplane.”