The Mysterious Crash of N965DM and New York Personal Injury Lawyer Steve Barnes

Steve Barnes’ last five words to Air Traffic Control(ATC) were, “Yes, sir, everything’s fine 965 Delta Mike…” Clearly, and sadly, from the events that transpired next, everything was not fine. Somewhere between 11:42 AM, when the the Socata TBM700N was at 28,000 feet, and 11:56 AM, when it crashed into the ground,  something went very, very wrong. 

By the night of October 2, 2020, news of Steve Barnes’ death was covered by dozens of local news outlets on the east coast, and even nationally on People.com and other outlets. 

What makes N965DM’s crash so mysterious? We really don’t know what happened. It’s common for pilots to issue a Mayday call and announce an emergency. Especially at 28,000 feet when there are several minutes to descend before impact. Steve Barnes had time to say something… but he didn’t.

When one of Amazon Air’s Boeing 767s crashed on February 23, 2019, First Officer Conrad Jules Aska chillingly cried out over the radio “Lord Jesus you have my soul!” 

In today’s blog, I will review the tragic fatal crash of N965DM and prominent NYC personal injury lawyer Stephen Barnes, which happened at 11:56 AM on Friday, October 2, 2020.  This crash stood out to me because it had no immediate clear cause – an aviation mystery requiring further investigation. It was also interesting to me because it involved someone I had been familiar with for many years before I got into aviation. 

At the time of this writing, the remains of N965DM are in a secure facility in Springfield, Tennessee Investigations involving fatalities usually take between 12 and 24 months to complete. We can likely expect the final report for N965DM between October 2021 and October 2022. 

When I first got into legal writing, about 13 years ago, I looked at a LOT of other law firm websites. If I were writing a page about pedestrian accidents, for example, I’d find another law firm’s pedestrian accident page and scrutinize it, making sure I covered the same points in my own work.  I wrote for some attorneys in San Diego, but I’d look at other big markets like Chicago, Miami, or Atlanta, and look at the top organically ranking search terms. I had a shortlist of firms that I knew produced stellar website content and ranked incredibly well in search engines. One of those law firms was New York’s Cellino and Barnes. They had a long, rich history of trial victories and out-of-court settlements. And a great website that they constantly updated. 

The firm was, by all accounts, legendary – at least among personal injury (PI) firms. They were based in Buffalo, New York, but had offices in New York City. They achieved impressive success. In 2017, the firm employed 250 lawyers and 250 support staff. They even had their own Wikipedia page.

Everyone knew their catchy jingle, which was composed in 1992 (the year the firm was founded) and had a very long run. In 2018, Inside Edition even spotlighted a viral internet challenge singing the popular Cellino & Barnes jingle. Katherine McPhee and Sara Bareilles even covered it. You can see Steve Barnes talk about the jingle in this clip here: 

The Breakup of the Law Firm Founded by Ross Cellino and Steve Barnes 

From 2,000 miles away, I didn’t follow Cellino and Barnes too closely once I had my own legal marketing processes figured out. At some point, things went very sour between Ross Cellino and Steve Barnes. NY Magazine even profiled the ugly breakup on September 15, 2020, complete with an editorial illustration to drive the point home. Ross Cellino’s two pointed fingers going into Steve Barnes’ eyes. Yikes. 

The last few years of Barnes’ life were filled with litigation. Not just his own law firm’s, but his painful and even cringeworthy legal battle against his partner Ross Cellino. Although all the points are not clear, it is clear that Barnes did not want to break up the very successful law firm. The Buffalo News reported in 2019, Cellino and Barnes earned “well in excess of $1 million a month.”

With all the arguing, demands, affidavits, and depositions, I can only imagine those hours in the sky in his plane brought Steve some peace. 

Once they finally got their issues worked out, Cellino and Barnes dissolved in June 2020, a divorce of trial lawyers during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The dispute had started long before the pandemic. Ross Cellino sued Steve Barnes in 2017, and the fighting was ugly.   There was even an off-Broadway play about the breakup in August 2019 (No word if either party saw the play). 

Sidenote: I always find it interesting when attorneys sue each other. Check out the  Eggleston complaint, filed in Orange County, CA, in 2010, which amusingly references a “large wooden dildo” and some strange activities at a mountain retreat.  I’m sure it wasn’t amusing at the time. 

Litigation was filed in 2019 by Steve Barnes. At the heart of it, the trademarks “DON’T WAIT, CALL 8!” and “DON’T WAIT, TEXT 8!” You can read the complaint on the Reuters website. In the aftermath of everything, the legal argument seems so trivial and unimportant. 

Steve Barnes’ October 2 Plane Crash 

After the big breakup, we can assume Barnes went on with business as usual of litigating and settling his many in-progress cases. He quickly established The Barnes Firm, with offices in New York and California. 

Sidenote: The Barnes Firm continues today. The firm’s website now nicely honors founder Steve. After Steve’s passing his brother Rich Barnes, also a veteran trial attorney,  was appointed President of the firm. 

According to the FAA website database of airmen certification, Stephen Edward Barnes held a private pilot airman certificate and instrument rating. He obtained a third-class medical certificate in May 2020, a mere five months before the crash that took his life. 

Here’s what we know about the October 2, 2020 crash from Kathryn’s Report and the Buffalo News: 

  • The first flight of the day from Buffalo, NY to Manchester, NH was uneventful. Barnes took 173 gallons of JetA before departing BUF at 0747. He landed at 0914, and took no services at the FBO (private aircraft terminal) in Manchester, New Hampshire. 
  • In New Hampshire, Steve Barnes picked up his niece, Elizabeth Barnes, to go back to Buffalo for a birthday party for Barnes’ mother. They never made, crashing 90 minutes into the flight, far to the northeast of its destination, Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
  • According to a review of air traffic control voice communication data, the pilot did not check in with the Boston Center during a routine handoff from one controller to another. Barnes eventually re-established communication with a radar controller about 15 miles east of BUF, while still flying at FL280, and requested the ILS runway 23 approach into BUF.
  • The ATC controller instructed Barnes to descend to 8,000 ft, to expect the ILS runway 23 approach, and asked him if everything was okay, to which Barnest responded, “yes sir, everything’s fine.” As the controller observed the airplane descending rapidly on radar, he instructed the pilot to stop the descent at 10,000 ft. Barnes did not respond.  

The National Transportation Safety Board decided not to send an investigator to the crash, citing COVID protocols. This news was not well-received by news outlets or local lawmakers Brian Higgins, a Democrat, and Chris Jacobs, a Republican. Both representatives jointly called the decision “extremely concerning” in a letter posted on Twitter

What Happened? 

You can listen to the ATC audio of the final N965DM flight here:

In the forums and comment sections of aviation websites lie a number of speculative theories as to what happened that Friday morning: 

Theory #1: Barnes got behind the aircraft. Barnes lost radio contact for a bit, missing a normal handoff from one frequency to another. This could have been due to a mechanical issue with the radios? Or was he not paying attention, perhaps distracted by conversation. Occasionally, pilots will miss a transmission if they are off-air briefly, but usually will catch the second call from controllers.

Barnes had flown past the normal descent point (to descend to land at Buffalo) when he reestablished communication. Airlaw.com reported (which was also on Kathryn’s report) that Barnes had only flown this aircraft 8 hours in the prior three months. Disclaimer: I am not sure where they got this report of 8 hours. And is it possible that Barnes flew another aircraft?

Theory #2: Barnes got hypoxia. The NTSB said that hypoxia was the cause of a September 5, 2014 Socata TBM 700 crash that killed a Rochester couple. One aviation consultant, Greg Feith, a former NTSB investigator, told WGRZ News it was a plausible explanation

Barnes’ plane was not equipped with a CVR (cockpit voice recorder), which could have contained clues as to what happened. The cause of the crash remains undetermined. 

We don’t know where Barnes’ niece was sitting in the aircraft, if she was sitting up front or in the back. I can only guess she was sitting in the back. If she was sitting up front, maybe she would have transmitted on the radio or even tried to help regain control of the aircraft as it plunged to the ground.

A Little History: How Did N965DM Come to Be? 

The paint scheme for N965DM eerily lives on at schemedesigners.com as a “sample project.”  The Scheme Designers website credits the paint scheme was to Dave Metzler, who I can only assume is the “DM” in 965Delta Mike belonged to. Dave Metzler also submitted this photo to Flightaware, ten years ago. 

When you buy an airplane, you can re-register a new tail number, which usually involves having the aircraft repainted, or in some cases, stickers or decals are used. Not everyone gets a custom tail number, I didn’t with my 172, and apparently, Steve Barnes didn’t with N965DM. 

The owner of 965DM was N965DM, LLC, a dedicated LLC. It is common in aviation to have a non-identifying, standalone LLC own an aircraft. However, the registered address does indicate the airplane’s association with Cellino & Barnes. The address on Main Street in Buffalo, NY, is the former address of Cellino & Barnes, and the current address of Cellino Law. I guess we know who kept the house in the law firm breakup. 

N965DM was involved in a hard landing at Buffalo Airport on May 30, 2019, which involved porpoising multiple times and a prop strike. Only one occupant was onboard, per aviation-safety.net. I was not able to verify if Barnes was at the controls at the time of that 2019 incident. 

It was not foreseeable that this turbine aircraft would crash, a decade later on a cold Friday morning in October 2020, in the upstate Village of Corfu. A sad, tragic ending to what surely was, an enjoyable aircraft to fly. 

Ross Cellino Remembers Steve Barnes 

In a TV interview on October 17th, Ross Cellino only had good things to say about his former partner, and remembered Barnes as someone who had a good heart and was strong-willed. 

RIP Steve Barnes and Elizabeth Barnes.

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