Aerobatic hall of fame pilot Eddie Andreini was flying a routine at the Travis Air Force Base. He was attempting a stunt known as an inverted ribbon cut. Something went wrong. Eddie’s Stearman slid upside down along the runway, coming to a stop at show center. His Stearman caught fire. Eddie couldn’t get out. The crowd watched, prayed, and waited for fire trucks to arrive. Some bystanders wanted to rush to the plane to help, but the announcer warned everyone to stay back and “let the firefighters do their job.”
But the firefighters didn’t do their job. By the time the trucks showed up, almost 5 minutes had passed. It was too late. Eddie, age 77, had burned to death.
When they couldn’t get answers from Travis brass, Eddie’s family sued the United States Air Force. The Air Force denied any liability. It claimed its response to Eddie’s accident was “by the book;” that the trucks arrived on scene within the time set by all Air Force standards; and that the Air Force response to Eddie’s mishap was otherwise in all respects “exemplary.” Further, according to the Air Force, the fire spread so fast that Eddie could not have been saved regardless of how quickly trucks arrived. Finally, the Air Force claimed it was immune from the family’s lawsuit because, first, the Air Force is an instrumentality of the United States Government, and second, Eddie had signed a waiver of liability before he took off.
We proved that the Air Force’s rescue efforts didn’t even meet its own standards. Trucks could have saved Eddie had they been positioned at show center. But instead, the trucks were positioned more than a mile away. Finally, instead of being suited up and ready to respond during Eddie’s performance, firefighters were wandering about the airfield in shirt sleeves taking pictures when the crash alarm rang out. We showed that, under the circumstances, the Air Force was not entitled to immunity from suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
With trial against the Air Force set to begin later this year, the Air Force agreed to change its procedures for protecting performers at its air shows across the country. From now on, it will position fire trucks so that they have immediate access to the show line. It will also have firefighters dressed and ready to go whenever a performer is in the air, eliminating the time needed after a crash for fire firefighters to get dressed and get to their trucks. Finally, the Air Force will pay the family $1.4 million, believed to be a record government payout for the death of a 77 year old.
It took four years of litigation to hold the Air Force accountable for its role in causing Eddie’s death. But by persevering, the family helped ensure that lives of other performers will not be needlessly lost at Air Force air shows.