The NTSB hasn’t yet issued its report on the fatal Skylife air ambulance crash in December 2015. But a Fresno judge has ruled that regardless of the cause, the family of one of the paramedics on board will not be allowed to sue either the operator of the helicopter (Rogers Helicopter) or the helicopter’s owner,   (American Airborne), regardless of whether they were negligent in the helicopter’s operation or maintenance.

As it turns out, both entities were partners with the paramedic’s employer, Skylife .  An employee cannot sue his employer for a work related injury or death.  Nor can he sue the employor’s partner.

Such claims are barred by the Workers’ Compensation laws.

 

The SkyLife Bell 407 air ambulance helicopter departed from Porterville Airport at 6:52.  It crashed minutes later, halfway into its 50 mile flight to San Joaquin Hospital in Bakersfield.  The four aboard SkyLife Helicopter Crashwill killed, including the patient being transported.

The flying conditions at Porterville were acceptable.  Though it was dark, the weather was 3300 overcast, with light rain, light winds, and 9 miles visibility.  Under those conditions, the crew could fly “VFR,” meaning they could avoid terrain and other aircraft by simply looking out the windscreen.  Were the conditions significantly worse, the pilot would have had to fly “IFR,” and would have had to rely on instruments and help from air traffic control.

The helicopter crashed east of McFarland.  The airport nearest the crash site does not have weather reporting equipment.  But first responders say that by the time they arrived it was raining hard. Photos of the crash area show dense ground fog. 

 Heavy rain, by itself, does not necessarily pose a safety risk.  But the restricted flight visibility that generally accompanies heavy rain or fog, does.  A helicopter pilot who inadvertently wanders into clouds, fog, or heavy rain can quickly become disoriented and lose control of the aircraft . 

One challenge of night flying is seeing and avoiding poor weather conditions before you wander into them.  Inadvertent flight into clouds is called “continued VFR into IFR conditions.” Sometimes pilots, trying to stay out of the clouds, will fly lower and lower until they strike hillsides or power lines that are hidden in the darkness.  The results of that sort of “CFIT” accident are almost always fatal.

It’s too early to say if weather was even a factor in this case.  After all, the first responders who reported the poor conditions didn’t get to the site for more than an hour after the crash.  But ground scars should provide clues to whether the helicopter might have crashed because the pilot lost control or whether, instead, he struck the ground, wires or a radio tower that he could not see while in controlled flight.  

Investigators will also want to know whether the air ambulance crew had night vision goggles available to them.  Night vision goggles have been a hot button for the NTSB for some time. 

Dr. Ken Gottlieb’s Cessna 182 took off from Napa Airport with only Dr. Gottlieb aboard. As the Cessna climbed from the runway, it turned in the wrong direction. It collided with high terrain just north of the airport. Dr. Gottlieb was killed on impact. His body was ejected and the aircraft exploded and burned.

The NTSB ruled the crash was caused by pilot error, finding that Gottlieb encountered poor weather, became confused, and failed to follow the correct instrument departure procedure.Dr. Ken Gottlieb

The family asked us to investigate. We learned that Gottlieb’s instructor had flown with Gottlieb a few days before the crash. The instructor found Gottlieb (pictured right) to be well-versed in the Napa departure procedure and otherwise meticulous in his flying. The instructor felt it unlikely that Gottlieb would become confused and turn in the wrong direction. As far as the instructor was concerned, whatever caused the crash was “out of Ken’s control.”

Faride Khalaf (pictured below) was the plane’s mechanic.  We learned that Khalaf began working on general aviation aircraft only after he was fired from United Airlines. We uncovered evidence that Khalaf had performed maintenance on Gottlieb’s aircraft without properly recording the work in the aircraft’s logs. In fact, Khalaf performed undocumented repairs on the pilot’s seat just a few weeks before the crash.

We examined what little remained of the wreckage and found two things that were unusual. First, we saw evidence that, at the moment of impact, the pilot seat was in the full aft position. Second, the pilot’s seat belt was unbuckled.

Based on their forensic work, our experts testified that as Gottlieb climbed away from the runway, his seat suddenly and unexpectedly slid to its full aft position and jammed. Gottlieb’s hands and feet could not reach the aircraft’s controls and the aircraft flew off course, out of control. Gottlieb unbuckled his seat belt so that he could scoot on his knees up to the aircraft’s control wheel.  But before Dr. Gottlieb could regain control of the aircraft, it crashed into the hillside.

Faride KhalafThe pilot seat slid back and jammed because Khalaf’s undocumented work was improperly performed.  He charged the aircraft owners for new seat parts, but did not install them. Instead, he illegally jury-rigged the existing seat release mechanism. The faulty repair held up for a while, but failed just as Gottlieb took off, causing the seat to slide back and jam in place.

Making matters worse, we found emails from Khalaf on Gottlieb’s hard drive. Gottlieb had asked Khalaf to perform an annual inspection of the aircraft just days before the crash.   Khalaf’s emails confirmed that he had in fact "finished with the annual" and that the plane was "good to go."  Based on Khalaf’s confirmation that the plane was safe to fly, Gottlieb departed on his flight from Napa. But, in fact, Khalaf never inspected the plane at all. All he did was change the oil, to make it appear as though he had serviced the aircraft when in fact he had not.  Had Khalaf performed the inspection, he might have learned that his previous improper repairs were about to fail.  

Earlier this afternoon, the jury entered its verdict against Khalaf for $13,360,000. The verdict is believed to be a record amount in California for the death of someone over age 65.

Khalaf’s attorney quit the case one year before the trial was set to begin. Khalaf elected to representCessna 182 N23750 himself during the 7 day trial. Adbi Anvari of Air West Aircraft Engines testified as Khalaf’s expert.  Khalaf called Dr. John Kane to testify about medical issues that Khalaf contended afflicted the pilot, but the judge ruled the doctor to be unqualified and refused to allow him to take the stand.

Dr. Gottlieb was a prominent San Francisco forensic psychiatrist.  He left his wife Gale, daughter Tamar, and son, Mike who is a lawyer and special assistant to President Obama.

Before trial, Gottlieb’s family offered to drop the suit entirely if Khalaf agreed to surrender his mechanic’s license. Khalaf refused.  That means despite the verdict, Khalaf is still legally entitled to work on aircraft and return them to service.

 

 

Khalaf Verdict

The owner of the Glasair III had finished painting the aircraft just before the fatal flight that killed him and his passenger near Byron, according to his ex-wife.

[Behne] had just finished painting the plane at his private airstrip when he and a friend went on the ill-fated flight. "He wanted to get it up and running," said Shelley Rose, whose marriage to Behne ended in divorce in 2009."

When an aircraft is painted, the painter must mask holes in the aircraft’s exterior, called static ports, as well as the aircraft’s pitot tube.  The pitot tube and static ports sample air pressure exerted on different parts of the aircraft during flight.  That information from the pitot static system drives the aircraft’s airspeed indicator, altimeter, and vertical airspeed indicator.

Forget to remove the masking tape, or allow tape residue to clog the tiny static ports, aPitot tubend none of the instruments will work properly.  Masking tape is what brought down a Boeing 757 in 1996, killing 70.   A problem with the pitot-static system (unrelated to masking tape) was also implicated in the crash of Air France flight 447.

Years ago,  I picked up my plane after it was repainted by a reputable shop in Northern California.  During my pre-flight inspection, I found tape residue clogging the pitot tube.  The tape residue would have prevented the airspeed indicator from working properly, and could have caused problems in controlling the aircraft, especially on takeoff.

An inoperative pitot-static system always presents challenges.  But the challenges are greatest at night or in bad weather, not during the nearly ideal flight conditions the Glasair pilot experienced.

Power lines can be virtually invisible from the air.  The trick to avoiding them is, paradoxically, not to try to find them.  Instead, the pilot should look for the towers from which they are strung.  Once the pilot has the towers in sight, he should choose one and fly directly over it, rather thaPike's Piaseckin between them.  By flying over one of the towers the pilot can be assured of avoiding the wires, since no wires are strung higher than the tower itself.  

In November 2009, a Piasecki helicopter struck high tension wires shortly after departing from Adelanto airport as it headed for an airshow in Riverside, California.  The helicopter crashed and burned, and all three aboard were killed.

We represented Colleen Goble, the widow of one of the pilots on board the helicopter.  Yesterday, a jury in San Bernardino county, California rendered a $10 million verdict in her favor against the estate of Joseph Pike, who was the other pilot in the helicopter and the helicopter’s owner.  The jury determined that Pike was the pilot in command at the time of the accident.

Pike, a well-known flight instructor with over 12,000 hours of flight time, trained his students to never fly between electrical towers.  Rather, he taught his student to pick one tower and fly over it.  On the day of the accidentPiasecki Crash at Adelanto, however, Pike chose to “split the towers” and ended up in the wires.

Pike’s estate had argued that forensic evidence showed that Goble, not Pike, was at the controls.  Pike’s estate also argued that the lines’ owner, the city of Los Angeles, should have installed orange marker balls on the lines to make them visible. Pike’s estate had sued both Goble and the city of Los Angeles but dismissed both those claims shortly before trial.

Goble was a vintage helicopter buff. He worked for a medical technology company and held several patents.  His work had been featured on National Geographic Television and had been displayed in the Smithsonian.  He was 58.  The couple lived in Connecticut and had no children.

The name of the case is Goble v. Estate of Pike.  The judge was the Honorable Steve Malone.

That’s the question I’m asked most often about the case filed by the family of the passenger lost in the Tesla plane crash

The reason TTeslaesla wasn’t sued is simple.  Neither a passenger nor his family is allowed to sue an employer for a work-related injury or death.  Instead, they are stuck with the meager workers’ compensation benefits available to them.  Even if the death was caused by the employer’s negligence, the family can’t bring the employer into court.

But as I told the New York Times when they called today, it gets worse.  The family isn’t allowed to sue the co-employee either.  Or, for that matter, the co-employee’s estate. 

There are very few exceptions to the workers’ compensation rule prohibiting an injured employee from suing a co-employee.  I’ve discussed those before here.  None of the exceptions seem to apply in this case.  Pilot error or not (and that’s debatable at this point), you can bet that the pilot’s estate will be asking very early on to have the case against it thrown out.

The family of one of the Tesla employees lost in last year’s Cessna crash at East Palo Alto has filed suit against the estate of the Cessna’s pilot.  The suit alleges that the pilot’s decision to takeoff in foggy conditions was negligent.

The air traffic controller told [the pilot]: "The runway is not visible so it’s at your own risk." Thirty seconds later, the controller repeated: "I cannot clear you for takeoff because I don’t have visibility on the runway, so the release is all yours and it’s at your own risk, sir."  [The pilot] replied: "OK," and took off anyway.

The pilot had received his "release."  (". . the release is all yours".)  That means that air traffic control had reserved airspace for him so that, once off the runway, he could safely fly in the clouds.  But the pilot had not been issued a takeoff clearance. ("I cannot clear you for takeoff.")  What was that about?

When a tower controller clears a pilot for takeoff, the controller is assuring the pilot that there is no one on the runway that the pilot needs to worry about hitting.  If the controller can’t see the departure path due to restricted visibility, he can’t clear the pilot, and so the takeoff is at the pilot’s "own risk." 

But just because the controller can’t see the runway from up in the tower cab, it doesn’t mean the pilot can’t.  And as long as the pilot can see what lies ahead, there’s really no problem. 

The helipad at Palo Alto airport is on the southwest side of the field.  The tower controller’s view of that area is blocked by obstructions.  As a result, every helicopter takeoff, regardless of the weather conditions, is at the pilot’s "own risk."  It’s up to the pilot to make sure he doesn’t hit something.  That’s standard procedure.

No one would argue that every helicopter pilot who takes off at his own risk is thereby negligent.  Hard to see why the Cessna pilot should be viewed any differently.

Robinson Helicopter Company has long touted the crashworthiness of its helicopters. An excerpt from Robinson Safety Notice SN-10, which dates back to 1982:

The R22 and R44 have demonstrated excellent crashworthiness as long as the pilot flies the aircraft all the way to the ground . . .The ship may roll over and be severely damaged, but the occupants have an excellent chance of walking away from it without injury.

That’s turned out to be not quite true. Sure, occupants may survive the initial rollover without injury. But because of the way it is designed, the helicopter is prone to catching fire and burning the occupants before they have a chance to get out.  There has been a string of such R44 N2153Saccidents, the most recent being the September 16 Robinson crash at Mammoth, California.

The R44 helicopter involved in that accident, N2153S, experienced a problem on takeoff.  The pilot "flew the aircraft all the way to the ground," just as he was supposed to. When the helicopter touched down, it rolled over.  As advertised, the two occupants survived the rollover uninjured.  But almost immediately, fuel rushed into the cabin, a fire erupted, and both occupants were badly burned.

As I explained here, there is no reason for an occupant to be burned in that sort of mishap. Technology has existed since the 1970’s that can almost completely eliminate post-crash fires in otherwise survivable helicopter accidents.  The technology is not particularly expensive, fancy, or heavy.

In the case of the Robinson helicopter, the biggest problem is the aircraft’s transmission. In any type of rollover accident, the transmission can puncture the fuel tank. The fix is simple: replace the rigid fuel tank with a soft bladder tank that won’t rupture. 

Robinson has known about the problem for years.  But instead of fixing it, Robinson tried to dodge liability by putting the problem back on the owners. While continuing to tout the aircraft’s crashworthiness, in 2006 it posted on its website a "safety noticeNo Nomex On Robinson Websiteadvising that anyone flying in one of its aircraft should wear fire retardant clothing head-to-toe.

To reduce the risk of injury in a post-crash fire, it is strongly recommended that a fire-retardant Nomex flight suit, gloves, and hood or helmet be worn by all occupants.

Robinson didn’t seriously expect any occupants to wear that kind of clothing.  It’s hot, uncomfortable, and generally inconvenient.  The "strong recommendation" was strictly a "CYA" move.  If Robinson was serious about it, it wouldn’t have posted on its website pictures of people flying Robinson helicopters in shorts and t-shirts. (One such picture right.)  Rather, it would show everyone wearing head-to-toe Nomex. But that sort of "advertising" would kill sales.

The unnecessary burn injuries continued. Finally, in December 2009, Robinson conceded that there was indeed a better way and announced that all new R-44’s will be equipped with bladder tanks.

In a continuing effort to improve the R44 fuel sytem’s resistance to a post-accident fuel leak, current production R44s now feature bladder-type fuel tanks, flexible fuel lines and other modifications.

Great news. But what about the thousands of Robinson helicopters produced before last December without bladder tanks?  They are, without a doubt, defective.  The defect has caused, and will continue to cause, needless burn injuries.  The defect and the resulting injuries are Robinson’s responsibility.

An instrument rating entitles a pilot to legally navigate an aircraft when the weather is bad enough that he can’t see outside.  A pilot who is not instrument-rated must always stay out of the clouds. If the weather is such that he can’t do that, he must stay on the ground.  

The training required to obtain an instrument rating is extensive.  In most cases, it takes a pilot longer and costs him more to obtain the rating than it did for him to get his pilot’s license in the first

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