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Former flight instructor charged with giving illegal lessons, officials say

Suffolk County Police Marine Unit divers search near a partially submerged downed plane in Setauket Harbor on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016. Photo Credit: James Carbone

A flight instructor who lost his credentials after ditching a plane in a fatal accident in Setauket Harbor 2-1/2 years ago was charged in Brooklyn federal court on Wednesday with illegally continuing to give flight lessons out of Republic Airport in East Farmingdale.

Nelson Gomez, 39, of Howard Beach, was accompanying a student pilot and two friends on a round-trip flight to Massachusetts...

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A flight instructor who lost his credentials after ditching a plane in a fatal accident in Setauket Harbor 2-1/2 years ago was charged in Brooklyn federal court on Wednesday with illegally continuing to give flight lessons out of Republic Airport in East Farmingdale.

Nelson Gomez, 39, of Howard Beach, was accompanying a student pilot and two friends on a round-trip flight to Massachusetts from Republic Airport on Feb. 20, 2016, when he emergency landed in freezing waters just offshore, about 1.5 miles from Port Jefferson.

Gomez and two of the men were rescued, but Gershon Salmon-Negron, 23, also of Queens, drowned. His body was recovered two months later. The National Transportation Safety Board later concluded that the small plane ran out of gas, and blamed Gomez for miscalculating.

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Despite surrendering his instructor’s license after the tragedy, prosecutors alleged Wednesday, Gomez continued to give flight lessons to at least two students in 2016 and 2017 — flying with one 12 times and the other 18 times out of Republic — until a fellow instructor tipped off officials.

After his arrest Wednesday morning, Gomez was released on a $200,000 bond after a brief hearing before U.S. Magistrate Steven Gold, who ordered him to stay grounded as a condition of getting out.

“It seems to me he should not be piloting or commanding any aircraft, period,” Gold said.

Gomez faces up to 5 years in prison. His LinkedIn profile identifies him as an employee of the Department of the Interior, and his lawyer said he was a law enforcement officer with the park police. A spokesman for the U.S. Park Police in Washington did not return a call for comment.

After the hearing, Gomez bolted from the courthouse, sprinting along Cadman Plaza with photographers in pursuit into a subway station. He did not comment.

The NTSB after the 2016 crash said the Piper PA28 four-seater’s fuel tanks were completely empty. Its report blamed “inadequate preflight fuel planning” and a “total loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion” for the crash.

They faulted Gomez for inadequately accounting for winds and flight time on the round-trip to Fitchburg, Massachusetts. “Examination of aircraft rental and fueling records revealed that the airplane had been operated for 5.1 hours since it was last refueled,” the NTSB wrote.

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“The flight instructor did not conduct adequate preflight fuel planning; had they done so and had they accounted for the wind, they would have recognized there was insufficient fuel to complete the flight and maintain the required 45 minutes of reserve fuel,” the agency added.

The student pilot twice asked Gomez if they should take on fuel, the NTSB reported, but “he stated the fuel looked good.” Later, over Connecticut, he decided to try to divert to MacArthur Airport, which was closer, to save fuel.

When Gomez realized the engines were dying over the North Shore of Long Island, the report said, he decided to try to land on the beach, but couldn’t make out where it was at night and as a result decided to put the plane down near the shore.

Gomez, the student pilot and one passenger were rescued by Suffolk County police, who had a helicopter on the scene. The body of Salmon-Negron washed up on the beach on April 11.