The ‘Nude Flight’ in Florida: Revisiting Pilots Phillip Smith and Paul Lindsay’s Wild Night in 1993

Source: Daily Commercial — Leesburg Airport

One can appreciate a legal opinion that tells a dramatic story. Although they are not written for our entertainment, the best judicial opinions leave readers wanting more details. The facts laid out by Judge A. Raymond Randolph in Paul Lindsay v. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB); Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), 47 F.3d 1209 (D.C. Cir. 1995), do not disappoint in satisfying our desire for a gripping aviation story and administrative courtroom drama.

The legal opinion of Lindsay vs NTSB; FAA, coupled with the supporting coverage in the Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Bay Times, offers a colorful narrative. Journalist Jerry Fallstrom of the Sentinel seemingly delighted in covering the saga over the course of multiple articles, which he referred to repeatedly as the “nude flight.”

I came upon Judge Randolph’s opinion of the matter one night while researching pilots who had the distinct experience of having their airmen certificates revoked and reinstated. Enter Florida airmen Paul Kenneth Lindsay and Phillip C. Smith, passionate skydive “jumper dumpers.”

In his fascinating legal opinion, Circuit Judge Randolph tells us, “To understand this petition for review of the Board’s decision, we must go to central Florida and the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, October 17, 1993.” He just as well might have said, in the spirit of the Golden Girls’ Sophia Petrillo: “Picture it. Florida, 1993.”

It is late night at the historic Shamrock Lounge in Lake County Florida. The real life story that unfolds details a post bar closing alcohol purchase, clothing stripping, a mystery flight, and a subsequent courtroom replay of events, complete with a bizarre witness who suggests mind control and hypnosis.

It All Started At The Shamrock Lounge

Photo of Shamrock Lounge, Leesburg, Florida
Photo of Shamrock Lounge, Leesburg, Florida
The Shamrock Lounge — Source: Google

Like many good stories, this one started at a bar. We can imagine the Shamrock Lounge in the early 1990’s. Yelp reviews tell us the establishment is a “seedy, smokey, biker bar” complete with pool tables, dart boards, and a jukebox. Perhaps Tag Team’s huge 1993 hit, “Whoomp! There It Is,” is playing in the corner. We can almost hear the occasional crack of a pool cue striking a ball over laughter and music.

Another review of the establishment adds to the visualization: “it’s a magical place filled with the most interesting locals around.” We don’t have to imagine the interesting locals at the Shamrock on the night of October 16, 1993. In Judge Randolph’s descriptive introduction of the key players, we meet the stars of the evening, all together in the seedy, smokey, Shamrock Lounge:

  • Phillip C. Smith, 49, pilot, owns an ‘aging’ Cessna Model 182.
  • Paul Kenneth Lindsay, 31, pilot, lives with his mother.
  • Sandra Sprincis, Lindsay’s girlfriend, a nurse, resides in a trailer in Umatilla.
  • Debra Hall, Smith’s girlfriend, a bartender at the Shamrock Lounge. When the bar closes, she provides the transportation for the foursome from the Shamrock Lounge to the airport.

I don’t even have to describe what we can imagine is happening at the Shamrock. Judge Randolph states “Two men and two women are at the Shamrock Lounge in Leesburg, drinking heavily. Their common interest is skydiving.”

Then we have a fact and an important clarification: “Both men are also pilots. Neither woman is.”

A 2021 Yelp review for the Shamrock tells us the bar offers “strong pours.” It seems likely that 27 years earlier, Smith, Lindsay, Sprincis, and Hall were enjoying strong pours at the Shamrock, as they were “drinking heavily.” The pours at the Shamrock are apparently legendary.

The facts at the beginning of any legal opinion tell us what happened as the judge understands them. No legal procedures exist that establish what a judge must include here — it is discretionary. Often, a judge will include information that is relevant in helping them reach their decision. In other opinions, the facts just fuel our imaginations. Judge Randolph tells us that aviator Paul Lindsay lives with his mother — an interesting piece of information that really seems to have no significant weight in this case.

A Reckless, Irresponsible Plan Is Hatched

Judge Randolph’s narrative continues to set the scene: “It is 1:30 a.m., and the Shamrock Lounge is about to close for the evening. ‘It’s a nice night for a flight,’ the men observe. With that, their reckless, irresponsible plan is hatched.”

The short drive from the Shamrock Lounge to Leesburg Airport.

The group decides to go to Leesburg Airport because “Lindsay wants to pilot Smith’s plane. He has flown it before. Smith decides to fly it himself. That detail settled, the four men and women leave the bar and drive in Debra Hall’s car to Leesburg Airport, 3 miles away.” We don’t even have to wonder if more alcohol was involved. Randolph’s opinion provides the juicy details: “On the way, they stop to buy some beer.”

We can infer that at some point between the beer purchase and the arrival at the airport, the decision is made by Lindsay and Sprincis, and perhaps the whole group, to strip their clothing. Piles of clothing are found by the deputies that drove to the airport. Judge Randolph said Lindsay and Sprincis were “both naked.”

We are not sure what kind of flying background Smith has, but we know that Lindsay, at the time, held an FAA Airline Transport Pilot certificate (the highest level pilot certification) and had 4,500 hours of flying time. If accurate, it is an impressive amount of hours for a 31-year-old aviator. We can imagine an experienced captain doing a thorough preflight walkaround, referencing a manufacturer’s checklist, and paying extra attention to the equipment requirements for night flight. Despite the absence of clothing, surely nothing was missed in checking the surfaces of the aircraft, the tire pressure, oil, fuel, and flight controls. What a sight the nude preflight must have been.

Within an hour, Leesburg Sheriff’s Department was notified “about a plane flying erratically over the town, a plane perhaps in trouble.” Responding officers arrive at Leesburg airport at 2:39 a.m. and find “Hall’s car and piles of clothing on the ground.”

The group cannot be found and the runway is dark. A short time later, a Cessna 182 lands. Judge Randolph’s account of the events continues: “Philip Smith is in the pilot’s seat and very drunk. Hall is next to him. In the back are Lindsay and Sprincis, both naked.”

Smith steps out, partially undressed, although accounts vary regarding his state of undress. The Sentinel reported that “Deputy sheriffs said Smith was struggling to pull on his pants as he landed, and his passengers — a man and two women — were nude.” The Tampa Bay Times reported “Smith said all he took off was his shirt.” Unfortunately, we do not have surveillance or bodycam footage of this deplaning, although such coverage surely would have required some editing and blurring.

On the dark tarmac, it now must be close to 3 AM. We can picture bright flashlights lighting up nude bodies in an ‘aging Cessna 182’ as deputies try to piece together the events of the evening.

Randolph’s judicial opinion again does not disappoint, telling us exactly how Smith gets thrown in jail:

“The officers ask Smith to step out. He complies, promptly fails a sobriety test and is arrested for violating Florida law. A deputy sheriff escorts Smith to his cruiser and drives him to the county jail.”

The Tampa Bay Times fills in a gap in the story here: Smith posted a $2,000 bail after his blood-alcohol level allegedly tested at 0.179 and 0.165 percent.

After Smith is hauled away, other officers stay behind to interview Hall, Lindsay, and Sprincis. Debra Hall climbs out of the Cessna, but Lindsay does not. Judge Randolph describes the scene:

“Lindsay refuses to budge. He is loud, obnoxious and, like Smith, very drunk. He brags about his flying skills. He refuses to tell the officers his address. His girlfriend Sprincis gives them her address in Umatilla and gives the same address for Lindsay.”

It seems at that point, Sprincis tries to diffuse the situation, trying to get Lindsay to leave with her and Debra Hall. But Lindsay isn’t having it. According to Judge Randolph, Lindsay tells Sprincis to “go ahead with” Hall. Lindsay promises to “beat her home anyway.” An interesting statement to make in front of a law enforcement officer.

It’s now 4 AM. There is some back and forth with the sheriff’s officers and their lieutenant. Eventually, the lieutenant radios word that Smith is okay with Lindsay staying in his plane.

Debra Hall departs in her car, the only car the group took to the airport. Randolph notes that she is “apparently sufficiently recovered from the effects of alcohol.”

The Leesburg officers depart in their patrol vehicle at 4:12 a.m., leaving Lindsay and Sprincis at the airport with the Cessna 182. The officers park nearby in the darkness, concerned that Lindsay may try to depart in Smith’s aircraft. About 30 minutes go by, and all is quiet. At 4:41, the drive away to respond to another call.

About 20 minutes later, it is nearly 5 a.m., still dark at the Leesburg Airport. Lt. John Thornton and his deputy return to the airport to seize the Cessna 182, only to find it is gone. Smith is in jail, which eliminates him as a possible pilot. Lindsay and Sprincis are nowhere to be found. Remembering the address provided by Sprincis, they drive to Umatilla. At Umatilla Airport — the deputies find Smith’s plane, but not Lindsay or Sprincis. They knock on Sprincis’ nearby trailer across the street from the airport, and no one answers.

How the Cessna got to the Umatilla airport was the subject of a January 18, 1994 federal hearing. Although the FAA assumed Lindsay flew it from Leesburg to Umatilla — and subsequently revoked his pilot certificate, Lindsay strongly denied this allegation.

The distance between Leesburg and Umatilla is 10 nautical miles. The flight between the two airports was short, estimated in the Sentinel to be six to eight minutes.

The short flight from Leesburg Airport to Umatilla Airport.

The Sentinel’s headline teasing the federal hearing pulled in followers: “Riddle For FAA: Who Moved Plane After Nude Flight?” With Smith in jail, the FAA concluded only one person moved it — nude passenger/pilot Paul Kenneth Lindsay.

This case begged for an answer to a black or white fact. Who flew the plane? Here are the legal events that led up to Judge Randolph’s opinion:

  • The FAA issued an emergency order revoking Lindsay’s pilot certificate, stating regulations prohibited Lindsay from recklessly operating an aircraft, 14 C.F.R. § 91.13, and from acting as a crewmember of a civil aircraft “[w]ithin 8 hours after the consumption of any alcoholic beverage,” 14 C.F.R. § 91.17(a)(1).
  • Lindsay's attorney, and the FAA stipulated that the only issue at the hearing would be whether Lindsay piloted Smith’s plane from Leesburg to Umatilla on October 17.
  • The Administrative Law Judge found that the FAA Administrator had not proven his case
  • The NTSB reinstated the revocation of Paul Lindsay’s certificate on appeal.

The Court of Appeals case of Lindsay vs. NTSB; FAA, was Argued October 27, 1994. The judge identified three issues in the case:

  1. Whether the NTSB erred in reversing the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)’s decision.
  2. Whether there was substantial evidence for the NTSB to uphold the FAA’s order of revocation.
  3. Whether, by presenting an affirmative defense (a defense completely different to plaintiff’s sequence of events), Lindsay waived any objection to the ALJ’s refusal to rule in his favor.

“The Holes In This Story Are Large”

Lindsay vehemently denied flying the 182 from Leesburg to Umatilla. He strongly objected to the FAA’s December 7, 1993 revocation of his pilot’s license. His affirmative defense supplied a certificated pilot responsible for the flight: Edward Carter, 44, of Winter Park. Here’s how Lindsay and his legal team detailed the sequence of events:

  • After the police left the airport, he and Sprincis got out of the plane, walked over to a phone booth and called Keith Jordan, a skydiver friend who lived in Leesburg.
  • Jordan said he received the call about 4:00 a.m.
  • With him in his apartment was Edward Carter, 44, an aerial photographer who videotaped skydivers.
  • Carter said he had travelled with Lindsay and Sprincis to Leesburg the evening before, and had been waiting for them to pick him up so that he could spend the night in Sprincis’ trailer in Umatilla.
  • Jordan and Carter hopped in a car and drove to the Leesburg airport, about a 10 minute drive.
  • Carter flew the plane to Umatilla. He spoke briefly with Raymond Cruitt, the security guard, walked to Sprincis’ trailer and fell asleep.
  • Jordan, Lindsay and Sprincis then drove out of the airport and back to Jordan’s apartment.

‘Carter Was A Pilot, But He Was Not Much Of One.’

Judge Randolph continues his storytelling, hitting us with the facts first. He writes, “We will put aside the fact that if Jordan and Carter had arrived at the Leesburg Airport when they said, the officers maintaining surveillance would have seen them, but did not.”

Randolph goes on: “The most glaring defect in Lindsay’s defense is elsewhere — in the utter implausibility of Carter’s having flown Smith’s plane to Umatilla. Carter was a pilot, but he was not much of one.”

In the approximately 24 year period from Carter getting his pilot certificate in 1969, to the night of October 17, 1993, Carter logged about 100 hours. “When the FAA Administrator started inquiring about whether he still had a valid license to fly, Carter invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.” Judge Randolph builds on his incredulousness:

“Carter had never flown Smith’s plane, and he did not have Smith’s permission to fly it on October 17. He was unfamiliar with the Leesburg Airport. Yet according to him he decided to take off in the dead of night, without lights, on an unfamiliar runway that dropped off into a lake, in a plane he had never flown, without checking the oil level in the plane, and without even knowing how much, if any, fuel it had remaining.”

It almost sounds as if Judge Randolph is a pilot. Although he doesn’t use the terms “Risk Management” and “Aeronautical Decision Making,” the themes are interwoven into his writing:

“What was the urgency that caused Carter to decide to risk his life to get to Umatilla, a mere 15-minute drive away? When the FAA investigator asked him this rather obvious question before the hearing, Carter said he had no particular reason.”

The “Bizarre” Testimony of Raymond Cruitt

The star eyewitness offered by Lindsay’s defense could have been Raymond Cruitt, the security guard with whom Carter allegedly spoke as he was walking from Smith’s plane to the trailer. Instead, he added to the confusion. In “rambling and disjointed testimony,” Cruitt accounts the events of the early morning. Cruitt “said that Carter had committed “perjury,” that Carter had not flown Smith’s plane because the actual pilot was one “Lawrence Eugene Kavel,” a member of a group dealing in “hypnosis, mind control, disguises,” a person Cruitt met some twenty years ago in Washington, D.C., but still recognized through the darkness despite his older appearance.”

It is probably not surprising, but there is no airman named Lawrence Eugene Kavel listed in the FAA database.

Judge Randolph wasn’t the only one who didn’t believe Cruitt’s testimony. He states in his opinion: “the ALJ found Cruitt to be “unreliable” and attached no weight to his “bizarre” testimony.”

A Sufficient “Element of Doubt”

Ultimately, the deciding factor in Lindsay’s certificate action did not come down to whether Lindsay piloted the plane from Leesburg to Umatilla. It came down to the required burden of proof. Although the ALJ said that he was unconvinced Lindsay did not commit the alleged violations, Circuit Judge Tatle opined that the ALJ “ had no duty to determine whether Lindsay did or did not fly the plane. His only duty was to determine whether the party with the burden of proof had established that its allegations were “more likely than not.”

A Happy Ending?

Only Paul Lindsay knows whether or not he flew the plane that night. And unlike an episode of Law and Order, the legal drama doesn’t close all the story points. We are left with lingering questions. We will never know exactly what happened, but the judge determined ultimately, the black or white fact of who flew flight #2 wasn’t the deciding factor in whether Paul Lindsay kept his wings.

We do know that eventually, Lindsay got his certificate back, and records a marriage of Sandra Kay Sprincis and Paul Kenneth Lindsay on December 24, 1996. FAA records show Lindsay is a current pilot and flight instructor residing in Umatilla, Florida. It is not clear what happened with Phillip Smith and Debra Hall, if their relationship survived the test of a revoked pilot certificate.

Pilot, Certified Flight Instructor, Aircraft Dispatcher & Writer