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.”
ICON Aircraft hired away from Ford Motor Company a superstar PhD to lead its engineering department. When Cagri Sever showed up at ICON’s facility in Vacaville, the first thing ICON did was send him off on a “demonstration” flight with the company’s chief pilot, Jon Karkow. Karkow flew to
Lake Berryessa, a virtual stone’s throw from the ICON factory. Once there, Karkow couldn’t resist the urge to engage is some low level maneuvering over the water. Minutes after takeoff, Karkow crashed onto the shore, leaving both of them dead.
The Cessna T310Q crashed shortly after takeoff. For clues into the cause of the crash, the press has focused on the fact that the pilot, Nouri Hijazi, had difficulty getting the engines started.
But what one witness had to say suggests that the plane was improperly loaded – specifically, it had too much weight in the back. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the witness watched the plane head off to the runway and saw something odd:
[The witness] said she watched uneasily as the plane slowly taxied for takeoff. As it did, the plane rocked back and forth, front to back, its tail nearly touching the ground.
That can happen when there is too much weight in the back of the plane. And when an aircraft is loaded such that is isn’t in proper balance, it can become uncontrollable shortly after takeoff and enter an aerodynamic spin or stall, even with the engines developing full power. That is, though there engines are running fine, the aircraft will stop flying and simply fall out of the sky. Judging from the security camera footage of the crash, something like may have happened. The video show the aircraft "falling" rather than "flying."
A courageous client speaks to Stephen Stock about the risks to the flying public.
In the face of intense market rejection, Icon says it has heard its customers and is going to revise the rather onerous purchase contract it planned to require of its buyers. It hasn’t yet made the new contract public. But in a statement it says that one thing the new contract will keep is the requirement that anyone buying an A5 sign away their rights to sue Icon after an accident.
Another fundamental tenet of ICON’s approach to safe flight operations, personal pilot responsibility, and product liability-cost reduction is the agreement not to sue ICON for accidents that are not determined to be our fault. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of product liability lawsuits are filed against manufacturers even when the manufacturer was not found to be at fault. We must address this. While there is no silver bullet for guaranteeing safety and eliminating all product liability costs, we are working hard to improve it. This is one of those steps. We invite our customers to help us set a new precedent in our industry and to improve this situation by releasing ICON from accidents deemed not to be our fault by the NTSB. Reducing product liability costs is important because it reduces the cost of aircraft and allows manufacturers to spend that money on product development instead of legal fees and lawsuit settlements.
At first blush, all that sounds reasonable. Why should an A5 buyer be able to sue Icon after a crash if the NTSB places the blame for an accident elsewhere?
Well, for one thing, the NTSB is not a fair forum. After any accident, the NTSB “invites” the aircraft’s manufacturer to participate in the investigation, relying on the manufacturer and its experts to help pinpoint the accident’s cause. But the NTSB never allows the pilot or the pilot’s passengers to participate, nor does the NTSB allow experts hired by the pilot or the passengers anywhere near the investigation. The pilot and passengers are entirely excluded. If that sounds like a conflict of interest, it is. It’s no wonder the NTSB seldom finds the manufacturers at fault. Nor is it surprising that courts of law, after hearing from both sides, frequently come to conclusions different than those reached by the NTSB.
And in fact, it is because the NTSB’s investigations are so one sided that NTSB’s conclusions are entirely inadmissible in any court of law anywhere in the country.
Looks like Icon’s new contract will be as unfair as the one the market rejected back in April. It’s hard to believe that any buyer who has done his homework would sign it.
Perhaps what is most troubling is its language that seeks to allow Icon to dodge liability for any accident, regardless of its cause.
Founder and CEO Kirk Hawkins told AOPA that Icon believes in "extreme responsibility."
What we’re trying to do, in a nutshell fundamentally, is put the responsibility [for accidents] where it belongs. . . If it’s our fault, we’ll own it. If it’s your fault, you own it.”
Seems fair enough, except that’s not what the agreement says. It says that if the accident is Icon’s fault because, for example, Icon screwed up the design or manufacture of the buyer’s aircraft, the buyer and his family owns it, not Icon:
Owner and Managing Pilot understand that participating in ground, water and air operations and related activities could result in injuries from a variety of factors, including but not limited to . . . defects in the aircraft or components. . . Owner and Managing Pilot knowingly assume these risks on behalf of themselves and their Successors in Interest.
If Icon would like buyers or pilots to "knowingly" assume the risks of defects in its aircraft, maybe it should come out and tell us what those defects are.
This is not about "extreme responsibility" It’s about extreme irresponsibility. Icon is trying to dodge liability for any defects resulting from its own actions and shift it onto others.
Who would buy an aircraft from a manufacturer who wants it in writing that if we made a mistake that injures someone, its your fault?
Piper N36402 departed Reid-Hillview Airport for Las Vegas as it was getting dark. The pilot had his wife and three children on board. Though the weather was challenging, the aircraft was turbocharged, which would have allowed the pilot to climb above at least some of the clouds.
The plane’s flight path, speed, and altitude changes can be followed on FlightRadar24. The radar track shows that the aircraft made at least one 180 degree turn, but then resumed its course.
It wasn’t long too long after that the pilot found himself in trouble. The radar data shows the aircraft’s speed building excessively and its altitude dropping fast. The made two mayday calls (recording below) before the aircraft crashed, killing all aboard.
The flight conditions were ripe for airframe icing. The Piper Lance lacked deicing equipment. Airframe icing changes the aerodynamics of the wing and tail and can bring an aircraft down in a matter of minutes. The loss of control can be especially dramatic when it is the tail surface that ices up first.
Experimental amateur-built aircraft crash more often than those assembled in a factory. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau found that, when compared to factory-built aircraft used in similar flight operations, amateur-built aircraft crash three times as often. Our own National Transportation Safety Board studied the amateur-built accident rates and made similar findings.
One might expect that, because they are built by an amateur, an experimental aircraft’s wings would tend to fall off more often than those of a factory-built aircraft. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Most experimental aircraft are structurally sound. Rather, according to NTSB data, the biggest issue is engine failure, often because of fuel flow problems.
And that’s exactly what brought down an experimental Van’s RV-10 aircraft in Toledo, Oregon, in June 2014. The aircraft lost power on takeoff, killing the pilot and his 4 year-old passenger. The NTSB concluded the engine failed because it wasn’t getting fuel. Investigators found broken fragments of sealant in the aircraft’s fuel line where, of course, it wasn’t supposed to be.
There are no statistics on how often the companies who sell kits get sued, but it’s hardly ever. After all, who is responsible for the defect in the aircraft’s manufacture or design that caused the crash? The company who sold the kit? Or the guy who spent several years putting the kit together in his garage? While some builders follow the kit maker’s directions to the letter, many do not, taking it upon themselves to modify at least some portion of the aircraft. That’s allowed by regulations and seems to be part of the fun of building the aircraft. For example, John Denver was killed years ago when the amateur-built aircraft he was piloting crashed off the California coast. The amateur who put the kit together thought he had a better way of doing it and installed the aircraft fuel valve in a place other than as recommended by the kit’s seller. The NTSB ultimately determined that it was that modification that led to the crash.
But even if the victim’s lawyer proves it was the kit maker, and not the builder, who was responsible for the defect, few kit makers carry insurance. That means a verdict against the aircraft company may be impossible to collect.
Despite the hurdles, the family of the girl killed in the Toledo crash has filed suit against Van’s Aircraft Inc., blaming it for exploiting FAA “loopholes” that allow it to sell aircraft that have not been properly tested and are thus unproven and unsafe. The suit goes on to allege that
Not only are Van’s aircraft designs untested and unsafe, but its assembly instructions are also inadequate and unsafe.
The suit goes on to allege that the fuel flow transducer that Van’s supplied with the kit was dangerous because it was not capable of dealing with a blockage, as would be required of on a fuel flow transducer mounted on a factory-built aircraft.
We can expect Van’s to argue that their experimental aircraft are just that – experimental. They are not intended to have all the safety features included with factory-built aircraft. That is why the word “experimental” is required by law to be prominently displayed inside each one.
Nicholas Baer was body boarding in Carlsbad on the Fourth of July when a plane towing a banner crash-landed on the beach and injured him. The twelve-year-old is now suing the pilot and the company that owns the Piper that struck him. The boy’s attorney argues that even though the Piper’s engine failed, the pilot shouldn’t have landed on the beach where someone could be injured. The pilot should have instead attempted to land in the water. Though the pilot might not have fared as well had he landed in the surf, there would certainly have been less chance of injuring beachgoers.
Seems that the boy’s attorney has a point. And this particular scenario – beachgoers being injured or even killed when a pilot attempts to put his plane down on the beach – is not entirely unheard of. It happened in Florida a year ago. The pilot in that case tried to land his Piper Cherokee, and in the process hit and killed a man and a daughter who were walking on the beach. And it happened in 2010 when a Lancair pilot landed on a beach in Hilton Head after his plane lost its propeller. In that case it was a lone jogger who was killed.
In each of the cases, the victims were innocents. The risk of being injured by an airplane was certainly the furthest thing from their mind.
Robinson Helicopters began installing crash-resistant fuel tanks in 2010. Robinson Helicopters with fuel tanks installed before then tend to catch fire during accidents that, but for the fire, would have been survivable.
The Australian authorities thought that the safer tanks were a good idea. Enough Robinsons had caught fire after minor accidents that in 2013 the Australian government grounded all Robinson R44 helicopters operating in Australia until their owners installed the new-style fuel systems.
The NTSB asked the FAA to follow suit and issue a similar order grounding R44 helicopters in this country. But the FAA refused. Even assuming the old-style Robinson fuel tanks were needlessly dangerous, the FAA thought they really weren’t all that different from the fuel tanks installed in many other older helicopters. If the FAA grounded Robinsons until they were fixed, they’d have to ground a lot of helicopters produced by other manufacturers as well.
But the FAA has known about the trouble with old-style fuel systems for a very long time. In fact, since 1991, FAA regulations have required manufacturers to install in their helicopters fuel systems that are proven "crash resistant." Trouble is, those regulations apply only to helicopters designed after 1994. They do not apply to helicopters that are manufactured today, but were designed (or certified) before 1994.
Unfortunately, the majority of light helicopters manufactured in the US today were designed before 1994, and so in practice the regulations seldom apply. The NTSB thinks its time for that to change. The NTSB’s latest safety recommendation asks the FAA to:
Require, for all newly manufactured rotorcraft regardless of the design’s original certification date, that the fuel systems meet the crashworthiness requirements of 14 Code of Federal Regulations 27.952 or 29.952, “Fuel System Crash Resistance.”
What will the FAA do in response to the NTSB’s recommendation? If history is a guide, unfortunately, the FAA will do nothing.