PLANES & HELICOPTERS – DEFECTIVE PARTS

This is the third blog on small planes and helicopters. As early as 1960, pilots and NTSB investigators reported Cessna pilot seats were sliding backward on rails designed to grip them. When pins that hold seats popped out of the rails, the seats slid so far back that pilots cannot reach the controls. Pilot seats slid to a full rear position on bounced landings. This was discovered by NTSB in 1966. In 1969, an Alaska crash of a Cessna plane occurred when the pilot’s seat did not lock before takeoff and slid back.

Cessna, in 1975, urged owners of its military models to replace worn parts. Cessna waited until 1983 to notified civilian owners 17 years after the NTSB first noticed the problem. Cessna civilian notice was a low priority service information letter , which said nothing about the seats sliding backwards. In 1987, FAA proposed issuing a mandate for Cessna owners to inspect seat rails. Cessna claim that if it was mandated, it would result in a significant number of seat rails that required replacement. The problem, Cessna added is that “with present production capabilities, Cessna would not be able to supply massive quantities of rails”. The FAA tried to accommodate and encourage Cessna to develop an inexpensive modification. Finally, Cessna developed and began selling the modification, however, it was difficult to install. In 1989, the Cassoutt family and a friend suffered extensive injuries when his Cessna A-185E did not have the new part. A Florida Judge ruled Cessna’s response to seat problems “were neither timely nor adequate”. A Florida jury awarded the three injured parties $480 million; $400 million was for punitive damages. The case eventually settled for $41 million. The jury did to Cessna what the FAA and the NTSB failed to do. Finally, in 2007, Cessna developed a device to stop pilot seats from sliding if the pins came loose. In 2011, almost 50 years since the NTSB reported that Cessna pilot seats were sliding backward, the FAA required owners to conduct more thorough seat inspections.

USA Today identified 79 people killed and 25 people injured by helicopter fires since 1992. In 36 nonfatal crashes, fire destroyed helicopters. After a minor incident such as rollover, an article in The Journal News on June 18, 2014 stated “one of the most gruesome and long standing problems has caused scores of people to be burned alive or asphyxiated in fire that erupts after helicopter crashes. The deaths are notorious because they occur after minor crashes, hard landing and rollovers. The crashes themselves don’t kill or seriously injure helicopters occupants but, the impact can rupture the helicopters fuel tanks sending fuel gushing out which ignites into a lethal inferno.

Crash resistant fuel tanks have been available since the early 1970s when the Army installed them and dramatically reduced soldiers deaths. “If it is cheaper to let you die then to fix it, you’re going to die” said Harry Robertson who invented crash resistant “Robbie Tanks” for the Army. Robinson Helicopter’s solution to the defective helicopters was to develop in 2006 a fire-retardant Nomex fiber suits to protect passengers from fire. After that, a Robison R-44 clipped a power line, fell to the ground and erupted in flames. Alec Beck died of burns and smoke inhalation with no evidence of blunt force trauma. Pilot, Craig Nemec lived for 14 months with burns over half of his body, had both arms amputated, lost his vision and underwent 20 surgeries and died in June, 2007. Robison’s Nomex suit had little effect.

Safety experts and officials have recently warned about the fuel tank in R-44, one of the worlds’s best selling helicopters. Two aluminum fuel tanks sitting on either side of a steel mast can crush the tanks in a rollover sending fuel spurting into the cockpit to be ignited. In 2006, Robinson began to develop fuel tank bladders to be installed on R-44 and R-22 helicopters. The firm started selling the bladders and all R-44 owners were to install the bladders within one month or be barred from flight. Something the FAA should have done in the USA.

The small plane or helicopter manufacturers cause burns, dismemberments and death by not reacting to a problem for years and when they did, nothing is mandatory. If any other industry dealt so carelessly with their defective parts, they would be out of business.

If you or anyone you know has been involved in a small plane or helicopter accident, contact the Law Firm of Dominick J. Robustelli & Associates, PLLC at (914) 288-0800.