A Frontier Airlines Boeing 737 was struck by lightning on New Year’s Eve en route to Tampa, Fla., setting off a chain of events that culminated in the arrest of a mechanic in Denver the following day. Conforming to company policy governing post-lightning strike checks, the maintenance team in Tampa inspected the aircraft (number 313) and made an appropriate entry in the logbook. However, that didn’t satisfy the Frontier mechanic in Denver.
According to a spokesperson for the airline, and the police report, Corydon Van Dyke Cochran, 44, a Frontier Airlines mechanic based at the company’s Denver (DEN) facility, discovered a burned-out wingtip bulb on aircraft number 313 as the crew was preparing for departure to Dallas as Flight 136. That’s when, according to Cochran’s own statement, he became concerned that the maintenance team had missed the burned-out bulb in Tampa and may not have done a good job on the lightning-strike inspection. It’s not known whether Cochran considered that the light might have burned out in flight between Tampa and Denver.
When Cochran discussed the situation with his supervisors and other maintenance personnel he felt that they were not listening to him. He attempted to convince them that the aircraft was unairworthy and should be grounded pending a lightning-strike inspection, but the supervisor tried to convince him that the inspection had been done and signed off appropriately in Tampa. Cochran said that as the 737 was being pushed back from the gate he decided the only way to keep it from flying was to disable it.
At approximately 12:40 p.m. on January 1, just as Frontier Airlines Flight 136 had been pushed back and was about to taxi for the flight to Dallas, the 737 captain saw Cochran walk out toward the aircraft, pick up a wooden wheel chock and throw it into the number-one engine intake. Cochran then announced over the maintenance radio, “Don’t dispatch aircraft 313. It took a chock to the engine.” The captain was forced to shut down the engine and have the aircraft towed back to the gate.
Cochran later explained that he believed the aircraft was unsafe and should undergo a lightning-strike inspection before departing DEN. He agreed that his supervisor advised him the inspection had been performed on the aircraft in Tampa, but he continued to assert that the burned-out lightbulb was an indication that the inspection was suspect.
Cochran’s supervisor explained to the FBI agent in charge of the investigation that the mechanic could have grounded the airplane simply by making an appropriate logbook entry or even by informing the pilot personally that, in his opinion, the aircraft was unsafe.
Cochran, arrested by the FBI for the willful damage and disablement of an aircraft, was brought before the federal magistrate in Denver and eventually released on his own recognizance pending a hearing. The federal charge of destruction of an aircraft in this case carries a possible sentence of not more than 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine or both or not more than five years of supervised release. James Hearty, Assistant U.S. Attorney, said the government would not seek prison time. Cochran could not be contacted for comment.