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Wed, Jan 11, 2006

Barnstorming: Pinnacle Suit Pushes Aero-Litigation 'Cringe-Factor' Too Far

Legal Note: This Article Is The Result Of Opinions, Observations And Questions Raised By The Author And Is Intended to Constitute "Protected Speech"

We have an unpopular little index here at ANN that we call the "Cringe Factor."

It's reserved for those stories, incidents and subjects that can make an aviator fairly angry, if not slightly nauseous.

Scored on a scale of 1 to 10; 2005 offered up some high-scoring examples of "Cringe-Inducing" moments like the nutball who went on a drunken joyride in a stolen airplane (CF of 8.9), the sue-first-and-find-facts-later lawsuits that were announced through 2005 (CF's of 7.2-8.8), the damaging and often errant anti-aviation rantings of instant aero-experts like John Loftus (CF of 9.1) and the Cessna 150 that blundered into the Washington ADIZ (2005's only "Imperfect 10").

Well, we're ten days into 2006 and have already scored the second "10" in the last year... and its one that seems to continue a disturbing trend of sue-first-and-find-facts-later litigation that may fly in the face of sense or reason. This litigation seems to rely on conjecture, guesswork, and what appears to be a set of flawed or incomplete "causes" that have yet to be decided by the NTSB or other investigative agencies.

A law firm putting forth a press release that immodestly calls itself a "prominent US aviation litigation firm" has announced 2 massive law suits against Bombardier, an airline, a number of suppliers and other players (seemingly leaving out all but the Wright Brothers and Big-Foot) and painted the "fine pilots" (killed in the crash) as victims of a horrific series of flaws in the CRJ-200.

According to the release, the suits were filed "on behalf of the families of captain Jesse Rhodes and first officer Richard Peter Cesarz, victims of the crash of Pinnacle Airways Flight 708, a Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ-200), which took place on October 14, 2004 outside of Jefferson City, MO. The flight, a regularly scheduled repositioning flight, had originated in Little Rock, Ark., and was enroute to Minneapolis-St. Paul for use in commercial flights. No other passengers were on board at the time of the incident."

The release notes some maintenance issues before the flight and then paints a picture of engine failures and system problems that never mentions or even hints that the pilots appear to have played a pivotal role in how those circumstances came about.

According to the Motley Rice, LLC, Press release, "At approximately 9:21 p.m., the plane took off. During flight, the crew took the aircraft to the manufacturer's authorized altitude ceiling of 41,000 feet. Flight at this altitude offers significantly better fuel economy. Once at 41,000 feet, the aircraft was unable to hold altitude. The crew immediately asked air traffic control for permission to descend. While waiting for permission, the plane experienced double engine failure. They repeatedly tried to re-start the engines using the manufacturer's instructions, but all attempts failed. The plane dropped at a rate of 2500 to 5000 feet per minute and was headed directly for a residential area. In the final seconds of their lives, the pilots steered the plane clear of homes sparing lives on the ground, but losing their own.
 
A post crash investigation revealed that the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) recovered from the scene recorded that the engine core rotors (known as N2) did not begin to rotate with the opening of pneumatic valves used for engine restarts. This phenomenon is known as "core-lock". The post crash investigation also revealed the GE CF-34-3B engines' oil pump malfunctioned and that other components of the engines suffered from extensive heat damage consistent with exposure to extreme high temperatures during operation, resulting in the rotor blades failing to rotate and suffering from the aforementioned core-lock, causing both engines to fail all restart efforts by the crew after numerous attempts to do so."
 
This description is incomplete and fails to mention some startling issues revealed by the pilots' own bizarre words as recorded by the CVR recovered after the crash.
 
Former DOT IG Mary Schiavo (pictured right), a lawyer with Motley Rice as well as a frequent presence on TV any time there is a sound byte to grab, also opined that, "Our clients, Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Cesarz, were operating under approved guidelines at legal altitudes and did everything in their power to restart the engines...
 
"However, this proved impossible because of core lock, oil pump malfunction, faulty re-start instructions and other problems with the aircraft. It is a horrible tragedy that they had to die because of these known engine problems. With this litigation, we intend to further the safety of our regional carriers, and safeguard pilots and crew to enable the provision of safer flights for their passengers."
 
First of all, let's get real... two pilots were apparently NOT operating under approved guidelines on this flight. They flew the aircraft in an unwise and allegedly non-regulatory manner, operated the aircraft OUTSIDE of its certified parameters, and according to a number of industry observers, "Screwed up... big-time." Painting these guys as innocent victims seems both inaccurate and disingenuous. The accident seems to have happened because two flight crew-members acted unwisely and (potentially) negligently in operating/flying the aircraft improperly.
 
The transcript seems to show two pilots who acted well-outside of accepted norms in pushing their aircraft, time and time again, outside of safe operating parameters and may, indeed, have caused the very emergency that ultimately took their lives and could have taken so many others.
 
The aircraft was repeatedly operated outside of proper procedure and accepted protocol from shortly after takeoff to the end of the tragedy. At one point, the aircraft was manhandled into an aggressive climb that produced a 2.3 G pitch excursion. The crew flew through (and apparently ignored) several iterations of a stick shaker actuation (indicating that the aircraft was operating well outside of safe aerodynamic parameters), leaving the aircraft in a perilous attitude and condition for several minutes in which the aircraft's powerplants not only were operating outside of known and allowed parameters but were eventually pushed to a point where critical engine temperature parameters on one powerplant were exceeded by a reported 600 degrees... Just the over-temp value of 600 some-odd degrees is nearly enough heat, in and of itself, to melt lead (621.5 degrees F). The actual max temp reported was a staggering 2200 degrees... a critical matter that should not have escaped the attention of the flightcrew and did not happen suddenly.

Motley Rice, Schiavo, et al, are attempting to blame the accident on a phenomenon known as "core-lock" ...a high-tech term for something of a jet-engine seizure.
 
Core-lock can occur as a result of a number of causes... (yes, including design, manufacture and maintenance)... but the way these engines were forced to operate sure seems to be have been begging for conditions that could induce this or other serious damage -- and not only fail a powerplant but damage them irreparably.
 
There is little, in my observations, and in those I've read from other industry wags, that contradicts the hypothesis that if these guys hadn't abused this airplane, there would have been no flame-out, no desperate need for a re-start, and no need to deadstick a commuter jet at night and into tough territory. This accident, to my mind, did not have to happen... and it wouldn't have, I think, had the pilots acted more prudently and within proper, legal parameters.
 
By the way, according to the release, "The plane dropped at a rate of 2500 to 5000 feet per minute and was headed directly for a residential area. In the final seconds of their lives, the pilots steered the plane clear of homes sparing lives on the ground, but losing their own."

First of all, when flying nearly eight miles over a major portion of the American population, EVERY direction takes you over populated territory. Such statements are nothing more than emotional hyperbole... and poor ones at that (in my opinion).
 
I'm also getting a mite tired of seeing various mentions that appear to invoke some sense of heroism on the part of those involved because someone allegedly piloted an aircraft away from a house or other structures.
 
I don't quite see the heroism involved. I really don't. The physics are simple... the best outcome for an emergency landing will take place if you don't hit anything too hard in the process of coming back to earth. Hit a house and you're probably buying the farm... there is no heroic altruism in this... it's simple survival and brutal terrestrial physics. In other words, don't hit houses if you want to save your ass. It's an unwritten but well understood corollary of modern physics. Honest.
 
Mind you, I so hate scenarios in which everyone gathers together and blames the pilots for everything... but the fact remains that sometimes pilots do screw up. In this case, I have little reason to believe that this accident would have happened if cooler and more professional heads had prevailed. In my opinion, using the courts to cash in on such errors serves few but the lawyers... who may walk away with a massive amount of cash and further tarnish the image of an industry that tries (and usually succeeds) in attaining a phenomenal level of safety and professionalism. I don't doubt that there can be some positive value in litigating against unsafe products or companies... but I also strongly believe that the legal system is being atrociously abused in the search for big bucks. I have a strong feeling that this may be the impetus for this suit.
 
One other caveat in all this... I am most decidedly writing about something that may cause Motley Rice LLC and its staff to be displeased with me. In this day and age, when you write about lawyers, you have to be very careful, because no matter how correct, factual, or protected your speech may be, someone with a law degree or access to those with same can make your life a holy living hell. Believe me, I know.

As a result of such legal concerns, opinions are often left unvoiced. Facts are often unreported, or incompletely reported, and the tortuous path to the truth can be clouded with fear and uncertainty. I have those fears, as well... but I also believe in what I say... though we ruefully note that anyone can be sued for any reason... no matter how flimsy the premise. 

Regardless, I strongly disagree with the actions taken by Motley Rice, especially before an official investigation has been completed -- and I find the published remarks contained in their press release to be self-serving, incomplete and questionable. I invite Schiavo and the staff of Motley Rice to offer their opinions, as well... but it is my sincere belief that this suit, and many others like it, constitute a clear and present danger to our industry... and as a result (due to increased costs, stifled innovation, etc.) to the traveling public, at large.

These are my opinions, observations and thoughts. What are yours?

Sincerely; 
 
Jim Campbell, Editor-In-Chief,
Aero-News Network

FMI: What do you think? Let ANN know!, ALPA Core-Lock Explanation, www.overlawyered.com, www.ntsb.gov/events/2005/Pinnacle/exhibits/default.htm

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