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Sun, Apr 20, 2008

TCM Hit For $4 Million Judgement... Despite NTSB Ruling Of Pilot Error

Despite Tort "Reform,"The Legal System Isn't Getting Any Less Strange...

While the statute of repose was supposed to minimize legal exposure for long suffering aviation businesses, it seems that the legal profession still knows how to extract a lot of money from this business... even when the facts don't seem to support that effort.

Local news reports state that Teledyne Continental Motors has just been clobbered for the princely sum of $4 million bucks. Robert Young was killed in a Beech Baron accident in January of 2002 while reportedly scud-running under a 500 foot overcast. The family of the Monroe, LA businessman reportedly claimed that the TCM powerplants (that were apparently not covered by the statute of repose, as the left and right 260-horsepower Continental IO-470-L (21) engines were factory remanufactured and zero timed in October 1995 and June 1996, respectively) were the cause of the accident -- an argument successfully put forth by local counsel(s) Daniel Barks, Richard Fewell Jr. and Dion Young, during a week-long legal case. Young, 57, was the only person on board the aircraft when it went down and was killed on impact, while trying to work his way home in poor weather from a hunting camp in Arkansas.

The trial apparently (and deliberately, it appears) tugged at the emotions of the jury, and local news reports indicated that the lawyers even brought in Young's Pastor to testify in the case -- though we're not sure what kind of value such a person brings to a suit in which the facts surrounding the cause of the accident are supposed to be the sole determining factor.

Be that as it may, the reason this matter strikes ANN as a little 'off' is simply this: the NTSB report does NOT report an engine failure as the cause of the accident... and it appears that both powerplants were operating at the time of the accident. Mind you; NTSB conclusions are not allowed to be used in such court actions... ostensibly in order to maintain some proper separation between the governmental functions of the accident investigation process and the civil actions that may result (and let's face it, the Trial Lawyers like it that way). At the same time... for a process that is designed and promoted around the world as the means to seek a fair and impartial determination of fact and cause... it seems foolish, if not downright Un-American, to exclude ANY fact that can have a bearing in finding the root cause of such a tragedy -- especially when those facts come from the most expert source in the world on such matters.

According to the NTSB Probable Cause Report #FTW02FA062, issued 4/1/2003, the Board found that N77RY, a Beech 95-B55, went down due to "the pilot's failure to maintain control of the airplane while maneuvering resulting in an inadvertent stall/spin."  The report summarized the tragedy by noting that, "A witness stated that he heard the airplane over fly the private airport at what sounded like a "low altitude." The witness went outside and observed the airplane approximately 1/4 of a mile southeast, at 300 feet above the ground, in a steep left bank. The airplane entered a spin, rotated 1-1.5 times, and impacted the ground. The witness reported that the cloud base was approximately 500 feet agl. On the day prior to the accident date, the instrument-rated pilot flew the airplane to a private ranch. Concerned with the deteriorating weather conditions, the pilot elected to depart the ranch one day earlier than he had planned, then return to the ranch via his vehicle. Prior to departure, the pilot obtained a weather briefing and visual flight rules (VFR) was not recommended for his route of flight. The pilot purchased the airplane in August 1994, and reported on an insurance form, dated May 14, 2001, that he accumulated 1,081 flight hours in the accident airplane make and model. Examination of the airplane and engines revealed no evidence of any pre-impact discrepancies."

The expanded narrative specifically cast doubt on any issues with a potential powerplant failure with an analysis of the powerplants, post-impact. "On February 20 and 21, 2002, at the Teledyne Continental Motors facility in Mobile, Alabama, under the supervision of an NTSB investigator, the left and right engines were examined. The inspection and disassembly of the engines and related components did not reveal any discrepancies that would have precluded operation prior to the accident. The fuel system components were examined and flow bench tested. During the right engine fuel pump flow test, there was no flow at the fuel pump vapor ejector. The ejector fitting was removed, and it was determined that the vapor ejector contained a foreign object that was consistent with black rubber. The vapor ejector was replaced, and no anomalies were noted with the flow test. The fuel pump was disassembled, and no contamination was found inside the fuel pump components. The source of the black rubber debris was not determined. To simulate a blocked fuel pump vapor ejector, an exemplar engine was run in a production test cell with the vapor ejector fitting capped. The engine startup and engine run to 2,000 RPM were performed with no anomalies noted."


The NTSB witness reports told an equally intriguing story. "According to local law enforcement officials, on January 4, 2002, approximately 0630, the pilot flew the accident airplane from Monroe to a private hunting ranch near Avon. The pilot was scheduled to return from the ranch on January 6, 2002. According to one of the family members, the pilot was concerned with the deteriorating weather conditions and elected to fly his aircraft back to Monroe before the weather got worse. The pilot then was going to drive his truck back to the ranch. Two witnesses, who were traveling in a vehicle on state highway 585 reported that they observed the "brown twin-engine plane" as it crossed the highway. The airplane was traveling in a southwest direction, and they 'notice[d] the unusual position of the plane flying. The manner in which it was flying looked sideways...The altitude look[ed] approx. 200-300 ft.'"

A witness, who was located north of the private Costello Airport (2LA7) north of Oak Grove, reported that approximately 1000, he heard the plane fly over his house and stepped outside of the house to see who it was. He observed the 'Baron flying south at app. 300 - 350 ft above the ground. The wings were level. It was flying at reasonable speed. I thought it was Costello's Baron. I was curious to know why he was flying so low.'"

Another witness, who was located in an office at the Costello Airport, stated that he heard the airplane over fly the airport at what sounded like a 'low altitude.' The witness went outside and observed the airplane approximately 1/4 of a mile southeast of the airport, at 300 feet agl, in a steep left bank. The airplane then entered a spin, rotated 1-1.5 times and impacted the ground. The witness reported that the cloud base was approximately 500 feet agl."

ANN E-I-C Summary: So... there you have it... no NTSB evidence of an engine failure, a pilot flying at very low altitude under a low ceiling and a steep turn to head back to a runway that could not have been all that easy to find in light of the meteorological issues, followed by the NTSB's determination of a stall/spin... and TCM gets to pay $4 million dollars. Is there any doubt as to why aviation continues to be so expensive and embattled when judgments like this are rendered with (apparently) little or no authoritative/supporting evidence? Hmmmmm... -- Jim Campbell, ANN E-I-C.



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