Was a tragedy during the production of Cruise's 'American Made' preventable? Conflicting accounts and a pilot in a "death pool" raise questions about safety and the filmmakers' role in it all: "Hollywood cut corners."
The villagers saw lights flashing through thick clouds. Then they heard a sound like an explosion. When they stumbled upon the wreckage of a small plane close to a dairy finca near the village of La Clarita, in the Colombian province of Antioquia, there were three men inside, trapped in the fuselage and badly injured but alive. The plane's tail had sheared off, and the cockpit was a mangled lump of glass and metal. The fuselage and wings were warped and bruised, covered by fallen branches, just a hundred yards below a ridgeline. The villagers ran to get help. When they returned with rescue workers, only one of the occupants was still breathing. He flashed them a thumbs-up sign and even talked. The other two had died.
Plenty of planes go down each year in the mountains and jungles of South America. This one, a twin-engine Piper Smith Aerostar 600, had been ferrying three pilots who were working on a film: Alan Purwin, 51, one of Hollywood's most sought-after helicopter stunt operators; Carlos Berl, 58, a well-qualified airman who knew how to navigate the red tape of the plane import-export business; and Georgia native Jimmy Lee Garland, 55, who could fly and repair just about anything. The flight took off after a long day of filming for American Made, a Doug Liman feature starring Tom Cruise, 55, as a drug smuggler turned CIA pilot, which is set to be released by Universal Pictures on Sept. 29. Filming had been underway for weeks in the hills in northeast Colombia, near the border with Panama. But the filmmakers were based in Medellin, 35 miles to the southeast. This early-evening flight on Sept. 11, 2015, was supposed to be a short taxi ride home.
American Made depicts the intricacies of flying small airplanes in dangerous conditions, and so in a strange life-imitates-art moment, the crash highlighted one of the film's central themes. The tragedy since has shifted to a wider set of questions about what happened and who is responsible. More broadly, the crash has raised new concerns about the adequacy of industry standards governing aerial work, including pilot safety. Berl and Purwin are dead, while Garland has been left without feeling across much of his lower body. The families of Purwin and Berl are suing producers Imagine Entertainment, Vendian Entertainment and Cross Creek Pictures for wrongful death and other damages, alleging that, in a rush to wrap up filming and save money, production and aviation companies ignored basic safety considerations. The families of both dead men also are suing each other, and Berl's family is going after Garland, the survivor, alleging negligence.
To complicate matters, Great American Insurance, which initially indemnified the production companies, recently filed suit in a federal district court in California to disclaim responsibility and look for relief from having to pay under the $50 million general coverage policy, alleging that the flight in question, as well as other flights conducted during the course of production, may have been performed illegally. As each party scrambles to assign blame about what happened in Colombia, allegations suggest that the process to ensure pilots were properly trained and licensed may have been flawed. A judge has placed a gag order on the ongoing legal proceedings, and multiple attorneys representing different parties declined to speak to THR. But in court records, the litigants accuse the production companies and other parties of behaving "unlawfully and carelessly."
Meanwhile, interviews with those involved and an analysis of court and FAA documents have revealed other troubling developments. The Federal Aviation Administration frequently conducts "surveillance" of movie sets and pilots, which often amounts to routine pilot checks, equipment installations and protocol issues. But federal documents show that Purwin and one of his companies, Helinet, were on the FAA's radar often. In 1996, Purwin was the pilot in command of a helicopter when it crashed, killing his fellow pilot and business partner. And Purwin had a broad restriction on his Airline Transport Pilot certificate that would have prevented him from piloting any fixed-wing aircraft in some of the weather and regulatory conditions encountered during the filming of American Made. Several pilots and safety experts with entertainment industry experience say Purwin was one of a handful of maverick Hollywood pilots known for taking unnecessary risks and being "dangerous." Three people in the Hollywood flying community say in interviews that Purwin had been placed into what a group of pilots casually referred to as a "death pool," a group of risk-taking pilots who were deemed to be the next ones most likely to perish in a crash.
What this means for the rash of lawsuits ramping up in court is unclear. Jeff Korek, a New York-based attorney representing the Berl family, argues his client's suit is an attempt to hold the industry responsible for its poor safety standards. "The impact of the loss of their father and only real parent simply cannot be overstated," says Korek. "We hope to put a dent in the pocketbook of the motion picture industry. We want the industry to understand and practice one concept, which the Berl family would expect to be put ahead of all other considerations in the making of a film, namely, safety before profits at all times."
In many ways, working on American Made was a pilot's dream. Based on real events, the film is set in the 1980s drug-smuggling era, when Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar and others were funneling tons of drugs north via mules, boats and maneuverable twin-engine planes. The movie follows the true story of Barry Seal (Cruise), a drug runner recruited by the CIA to go after Escobar. The production called for plenty of flying in remote, dramatic landscapes over jungle canopies or a few feet off the ocean. And the pilots would get a chance to fly a plane that other pilots often view as racy and daring, the airborne equivalent of Formula One race cars. The Aerostar 600 was designed to be light, very fast and able to carry large payloads. But the plane had a poor safety record and, among many pilots, a reputation as a "widow-maker."
Carlos Berl grew up in a family of pilots in Venezuela, where his parents had settled after fleeing Austria and the Nazis after World War II. The perils of piloting small planes in South America during the 1980s became evident when traffickers stole the Berls' twin-engine Turbo Commander. The Berls bought another one, but the cartel returned and said they would take it if the family didn't sell. Carlos, the second of the four brothers, eventually moved to Florida and later New York. He kept flying, racking up an array of licenses. The rules guiding airplane licenses and certificates are complex; pilots need different licenses to pilot various types of planes, and those certifications require maintenance, medical checks and frequent training. By 2015, he had a G-IV, one of the most difficult licenses to obtain, usually reserved for corporate jet pilots. That year, Javier Diaz, a family friend who lived not far from Berl's home in Dobbs Ferry, New York, approached Berl with a proposition. A former investment banker, Diaz had parlayed his passion for flying into a gig as a helicopter pilot and ran a company in the area. Diaz told Berl he wanted help with some routine flying on the set of a movie starring Cruise about drug smuggling in South America.
Berl's family says he placed a premium on safety, and FAA records appear to support that claim. Between 2008 and 2015, Berl voluntarily took 12 classes and seminars from the FAA's Safety Team programs, where he received online training and attended in-person courses with certificated instructors. His younger brother Andres, who learned to fly at Carlos' side, says his brother always used instrumentation meticulously and participated in annual factory training sessions. On paper at least, Berl seemed to be a pilot's pilot.
Still, Diaz's offer initially didn't excite him. He told his family he was worried about getting dragged into a contractual relationship that might hinder his life. But Diaz persisted. Berl had long experience bringing airplanes in and out of South America; he knew the regulations well; he spoke Spanish. Eventually, Berl agreed to help with some initial flight plans and with ferrying a plane from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Colombia. Eventually, he grew excited, says Jenny, Berl's 24-year-old daughter. The first trip to South America went well. Berl stayed in swanky hotels, ate meals and snagged pictures with Cruise and flew home without incident. (The actor, through a spokesman, declined comment for this story.)
Then in September, Diaz called again. He told Berl that producers wanted Berl to return to Colombia for more work. Specifically, they needed someone to fly the Aerostar 600 home to Florida. Designed in the late 1960s, the plane was known among pilots as "the world's fastest piston twin." It was a sleek model prized for its speed, even if it sometimes came at the expense of safety. There have been more than 260 deaths involving the plane in 191 accidents around the world since 1969, according to the Aviation Safety Network. A 1998 review published by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association concluded Aerostars had "a clear-cut distinction as fast and alluring airplanes that will eat you alive at the maintenance shop or at the slightest hint of relaxed vigilance on the controls."
In other words, piloting an Aerostar wasn't for the uninitiated. "Pilots often call that plane the Death Star," says Chris Palmer, a safety and risk assessment consultant who has worked on hundreds of Hollywood productions. "You had better be darn good in that craft if you're going to fly it." But Berl, an expert in so many planes, had never stepped foot in one. Andres Berl says his brother wasn't interested in flying it without advanced training. He says Berl asked Diaz repeatedly whether he could get some training, but it never materialized. "It's not like a car," says Andres. "Unless you've flown it before, you need a certificate with a trained pilot who signs your logbook."
As Berl waited for word in New York, he ordered the Aerostar manual with a map of the instrument panel and began to study. In the meantime, he asked Diaz to prepare paperwork to legally import the plane back from Colombia to the U.S. A few days later, Andres says Carlos discovered that Diaz hadn't prepared that paperwork. Furious, Berl told his brother he would cancel the trip to Colombia. (Diaz declined repeated requests for an interview.) That night, Sept. 9, 2015, the two brothers parted ways at a train station in Westchester County. They agreed to see each other the next day. But a day later, Carlos was gone. "I guess Diaz convinced him," says Andres, shrugging his shoulders during an interview. Later that day, Berl called daughter Jenny and told her he was going to be on set. "I told him to give me a call when he was done," she says. It was the last time they spoke.
Like Berl, Jimmy Lee Garland didn't have any experience with Hollywood. But he knew planes, and he knew how to fix them. Soft-spoken and polite, he had grown up in Georgia and spent most of his adult life there flying planes. He was pleasantly surprised when movie producers showed up one day at the Cherokee County Airport, where he ran S&S Aviation. Garland had licenses to fly many types of planes. He also taught aviation, and before he knew it, he and Cruise were soaring and floating in Garland's Cessna 414, a twin-engine transport aircraft that would become one of two planes Cruise flies in American Made. Garland worked as Cruise's double in the film. (FAA records show that Cruise first got a private pilot's license in 1994 and obtained his commercial license in 1998.)During filming, Garland gave him lessons specific to the Cessna, sitting by his side while Cruise manipulated the controls. He noticed that Cruise "liked to participate in the stunts." Eventually Cruise was doing all the flying himself, says Garland. "He's a very good pilot."
Toward the end of August, says Garland, the producers asked him to return to Colombia to fly the Cessna and help as a mechanic on that plane and the Aerostar. For the next few weeks, he flew all over the country, down to the edge of the Amazon jungle and along the borders of Peru and Brazil. He'd never done anything like it before, and it struck him as a "once-in-a-lifetime adventure." By September, after long days of shooting in Santa Fe de Antioquia, Garland was commuting regularly back to Medellin, where he and a business partner stayed in a plush hotel. To kill time, they ate steak dinners and played blackjack at the local casino, where the dollar was worth 3,200 pesos. The flight back to Medellin on Sept. 11 was a routine part of that week's work.
Dawn in the farming region of Llano de Ovejas had been clear, and villagers had reported stars visible in the sky in the morning. After filming had wrapped for the day, the Aerostar took off around 5:30 p.m. and headed south. Without any radio contact or communication with air traffic controllers, it rose to 8,500 feet, following in the path of two helicopters that had left minutes earlier, one of which was ferrying Cruise home for the night. As the plane picked up speed, tracing lush mountainous ridges, a cloud bank was settling in on the summits that circle the valley where Medellin sits.
Garland blacked out when the plane crashed. Colombian media reports indicate that he spoke to his rescuers, but Garland claims not to recall any of it. He says his first memory is waking up in a hospital nine days later trying to rip a respirator out of his throat. The crash left him with a shattered vertebra, collapsed lung, herniated diaphragm, 10 broken teeth, broken ribs, a broken jawbone and a cracked skull on both sides of a dislodged eye socket. His body veered close to sepsis in the hospital, but he recovered. A small piece of steel keeps his skull together. He's undergoing extensive physical therapy. "It took me about a month to gather my wits," he says. Liman, 51, has stayed in touch, sending him articles about spinal injuries, emails and a Christmas card. (The director declined comment for this story.)
Berl's lawsuit states unequivocally that Garland was piloting the plane when it crashed, with Berl as his co-pilot. But Garland, in two interviews, categorically denied piloting the craft that day. "I was there as a mechanic," he insists. The Purwin family suit claims Purwin was along in a passenger seat to provide additional instruction, but Garland says he can't recall, so it's impossible to say with any certainty. Of the three men, Purwin was the only one with a Hollywood résumé. He had worked on blockbusters and tentpole franchises, including Tropic Thunder, Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers, along with about 100 other movie and TV productions. Early in his career, he had put together elaborate helicopter stunts for The A-Team and Airwolf. With his wife, Kathryn, Purwin had founded Helinet Aviation, and the company was a successful industry go-to for high-end aerial and camera work. He had donated a helicopter to Children's Hospital Los Angeles, and he had worked with rescuers after Hurricane Katrina, providing medical transport to hospitals and patients free of charge.
But Purwin's death has led to a quiet reckoning among pilots and safety experts who are closely examining his record. In 1996, during filming for a commercial directed by Michael Bay, Purwin was piloting a Bell/Tsirah Cobra helicopter when a rotor blade clipped a boulder, resulting in a crash that killed his fellow pilot and business partner Michael Tamburro. Tamburro's wife, Tammy, sued Purwin and received a $7 million settlement. One aviation expert with decades of experience in Hollywood says that Purwin, whom he knew personally and professionally, was "frankly, a terrible pilot, and it was his incompetence that killed his partner." In a recent interview, Tamburro's widow declined comment on the 1996 crash and said Purwin was a "dear friend." An FAA spokesman, Ian Gregor, said that an examination of Purwin's records found mostly run-of-the-mill reviews and complaints. There were a few "actual problems," says Gregor, but most of it was "routine." FAA records show that some of these "actual problems" involved accidents and complaints from the public. The regulatory agency issued Purwin warnings after breaches in standard protocol. In 2010, the camera ball on Purwin's helicopter broke when it struck an electrical power wire. In 2012, Purwin was cited for flying too close to the Malibu Pier. In that case, the FAA reported that "enforcement" began in January, and the next month Purwin received a "warning notice." All told, dozens of incidents (which the FAA defines as potentially hazardous situations) go back several years. FAA authorities say that incidents on a pilot's record are expunged after five years or less, which could explain why the FAA had no record of Purwin's 1996 helicopter crash in its files.
Meanwhile, since the crash in Colombia, Purwin's licensing has come under added scrutiny. According to publicly available FAA documents, he had what's known as an Airline Transport Pilot license. It's one of the highest ratings a pilot can get. However, FAA records show that Purwin's ATP was specific to helicopters and did not apply to fixed-wing aircraft. Mark Nathan Boss, a designated pilot examiner who tested Purwin and issued him a commercial license, says Purwin's ATP "doesn't transfer to airplanes." FAA records show that Purwin's ATP license came with an officially noted limitation that read, "The carriage of passengers for hire on airplanes on cross-country flights in excess of 50 nautical miles or at night is prohibited."
That particular clause may not be relevant to the crash in Colombia because flights and crashes in foreign countries are adjudicated by different agencies with different rules. But Purwin's ATP limitation would have applied to any flight originating inside the U.S. On Aug. 19, 2015, three weeks before the Aerostar crashed in Colombia, a flight-tracking website shows that the same plane filed another flight plan. It originated in Clearwater, Florida — where Cruise maintains a personal home and the Church of Scientology has a major base of operations — and ended in Kingston, Jamaica. Berl was elsewhere on that date. Garland denies that he ever piloted an Aerostar from Florida to Jamaica. But that flight may be relevant to the litigants in the case, including Great American Insurance, because it originated on U.S. soil and appears to have been conducted during the production window of American Made. An FAA official says that the flight would have been illegal if Purwin was acting as the pilot-in-command because of the limitation on his ATP. Of course, Cruise could have been piloting the plane, but because the FAA does not keep records of past flight plans longer than 15 days, the full picture remains incomplete. But even if Cruise was properly licensed, there still could be a legal issue. FAA regulations state that any plane used for carrying passengers for hire must be listed on what's called a 135 certificate, and several aviation experts who work regularly in Hollywood say that flights conducted during paid film projects often require that designation. An FAA official confirms that the company that owned the Aerostar did not possess that 135 certificate for fixed-wing planes. Answers to questions regarding who piloted the plane and whether it was properly certified may emerge during the ongoing litigation.
Great American initially indemnified the studios after the crash, to the tune of $50 million. But in May, in a rare reversal, the company filed a complaint in a federal district court against the producers, as well as Berl and Purwin, alleging that multiple flights conducted during the filming of American Made were "unlawful." The policy stipulated that the choice of pilots for flights made during filming was to be "at the discretion" of Fred North, the film's aerial flight coordinator. Great American argues that the plane may have been used for an "unlawful purpose," though it doesn't specify what that could be. It also points to the ambiguity about who was piloting the plane, or whether that person was "properly certificated, qualified and rated under the applicable law for the operation involved." If, as the Purwin suit suggests, Berl was piloting the plane at the time of the crash, the insurance company claims the flight would have been unlawful because a passenger was in the aircraft without a properly certified flight instructor giving lessons.
The Berl family is alleging that the movie's producers, Garland and Purwin hurried Berl onto the Aerostar in Santa Fe de Antioquia at the last minute before the flight took off for Medellin and then told him that the short flight south would be considered his training, even though Berl had requested extra training on the aircraft before agreeing to take the controls. The Berl suit says the terrain of the flight path that night was "unsuitably difficult for such an instructional flight, especially one conducted in a rushed and unscheduled manner in an aircraft with limited flight data and weather instrumentation." In interviews, several people have alleged that the crew was "rushing" to get back to Medellin that night in order to keep ahead of delays that had plagued production. One aviation expert who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity says that FAA officials with direct knowledge of the crash later told him that a dispute of some sort took place just before the three men boarded the plane. "Apparently there was an argument about needing to leave immediately, even though they had some information about the weather that they should have stayed behind," says this source. "But it was the jungle, and they wanted to get out of there. I was just told there was intense pressure to get out as soon as possible. That causes shortcuts." And one lawyer familiar with the details of the case claimed that Cruise had been on the plane "just moments before" it took off. It was not possible to verify that claim. (Garland declined to comment.) The Berl lawsuit alleges that this apparent rush to save time and money "compromised safety." Andres Berl is more blunt: "Hollywood cut corners."
The Purwin suit echoes many of the same charges but makes the parallel accusation that as a passenger, he died because the men in the cockpit, including Berl, shouldn't have been piloting the plane. All of which raises the question of what role North, the aerial coordinator for the movie, may have played. Through an attorney, North declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. The production companies also are keeping quiet for now, citing the judge's gag order. One experienced Colombian pilot who is knowledgeable about the details of the Aerostar crash agreed to share his thoughts about the ill-fated trip on the condition of anonymity. "I fly there regularly, and I would have stayed on the ground that day," he says. "You have to have experience to fly in Colombia. You cannot fly here like you fly in Miami, where there's not a mountain anywhere. If you fly in South America, you have to be very trained in the conditions." The Colombian authorities still are investigating the crash, and their report is expected soon.
Whatever final thoughts the three men shared in the cockpit that day likely never will be clear, unless Garland recovers his memory and decides to speak. From his years of flying in Venezuela, Berl would have recognized the sudden inclement weather patterns that could abruptly emerge. For years, Escobar had used these hills, the fog, the slipstream and the presence of multiple, identical small planes in the ether to great advantage in his rise as the continent's most prolific drug trafficker. The moviemakers no doubt had wanted to capture that sense of elusive beauty, the thrill of flight, escape and maybe even freedom. It wasn't yet 6 p.m. when the plane arced high, made an attempt to cross a ridgeline — and failed. The small craft dropped, smashed into a tree and began to splinter, carving a violent path through the fields on a steep hill, coming to rest, finally, in tatters on a terraced hillside, under a grove of chestnut trees. Eventually, Garland made it home alive. Purwin and Berl never did. The question now is whether it was a tragedy that could have been prevented.
This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.