Ancient Aircraft = Liability?

January 14, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

Does anyone else besides me think the legal system sometimes gets a little wacky?

I came across a news item that is both amusing and infuriating, if that’s possible. According to the Miami Herald, “Chalk’s Ocean Airways claims the Grumman Turbo Mallard was “not adequately designed for its intended purpose,” and sued Grumman over a seaplane crash. ” The 58 year old seaplane crashed in 2005 killing 18 passengers and two crew members after a wing separated. Wings don’t just fall off and this one didn’t either: corrosion and fatigue were noted as the probable cause. The last one was built in 1951.

Never mind that these aircraft have literally flown all over the world for decades and this was the last one in commercial service. The Herald: ”Chalk’s lost everything,” said John Eversole, the company’s lawyer, said. “They were put out of business by the defective nature of this airplane. It is as simple as that, and to be wrongly blamed by the NTSB is even worse for your reputation.”

The NTSB noted that the airline failed to fix fatigue cracks and the FAA failed to provide proper oversight of the airline’s maintenance. I can see how that might be damaging to a company’s reputation, especially if the facts were supported.

Plaintiffs suing manufacturers on decades old aircraft has some similarity to a reported lawsuit filed by NASCAR against Cessna for what appears to be an electrical fire. That resulted in a fatal accident with a 30-year-old Cessna 310. ASF is watching that one closely and will be attending an NTSB hearing later this month. Stay tuned. The General Aviation Revitalization Act, or GARA, limits manufacturer liability to 18 years but there are exceptions.

We agree that manufacturers need to be responsible for their products but is it only in aviation that companies can be held liable indefinitely? It will be interesting to see if the legal system has the integrity to seriously question what I believe is an unjustified suit – without running up a huge tab.

Aging aircraft need special care and ASF has an online course to help you deal with the practicalities, if not the legalities. Aging Aircraft Interactive Course.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Roy Uchman

    I think this lawsuit speaks to the (lack of) integrity of Chalk’s Ocean Airways’ management, not the aircraft. As we know, aging aircraft need special care and consideration in maintenance and operation. Especially seaplanes operated for decades in a salt water environment. I can’t understand how a manufacturer can be held responsible for a product that was designed and produced more than half a century ago, and has successfully fulfilled its purpose for decades.

    Aircraft structures and components have a finite life, which is why we inspect for fatigue cracks, corrosion, etc.; and this is why we have such high standards for repair. By and large, aircraft operators accept responsibility, and hold ourselves accountable for how our aircraft are maintained. I think that, with very few exceptions, we hold ourselves liable.

  • John Postl

    The culprit here is not “the legal system” as you put it. Contrary to popular belief, frivolous lawsuits don’t make it to trial. The facts reported are sketchy so it is impossible to know how liability was assigned. The quote from Chalk’s lawyer leads me to believe it was Chalk’s who successfully shifted some of the blame to Grumman.

    If you don’t like the way the legal system works, then work to change it. That’s how we got the General Aviation Revitalization Act. Stop blaming the “legal system” and the lawyers who work within a legal system that is a thousand years older than aviation itself.

  • John Majane

    This is a terrible precedent. You have an aircraft operated way beyond it’s intended life span in a highly corrosive environment that obviously did not get the TLC it needed in regards to inspections. The owner of Chalk’s and it’s lawyer are just looking at the deep pockets of Grumman for a pay day. The next step will be these manufacturers buying up or finding some way to confiscate older aircraft because it is cheaper than paying slime ball lawyers extortion fees. We will all be hurt by this.

  • Don Pointer

    As usual there are several facets to this tragedy. The plane was poorly maintained and eventually faliled. No surprise. The owners don’t want to be liable so they blamed the airplane manufacturer. The lawyers don’t mind.
    They make a bunch of money off of this. Aren’t humans grand?

  • Jack Silva

    I remember seeing a picture of a very poorly done repair on this aircrafts wing. It was some miss drilled screw holes in the spar. Those holes let to cracks and you know the rest. The fact that this aircraft was 58 years old was not the problem. Maintenance was. I’m not sure who did the repair but if the Chalks knew about the miss drilled holes, then they were liable. If not, they were the victim’s of a poorly trained mechanic.

  • Kristin Winter

    I haven’t seen the complaint, so I don’t know the basis for Chalk’s allegations of defective design. The issue is likely to be one of fact. It would seem that an aircraft that has operated as long as this one had, can scarcely be said to be defective, but a jury will have to decide. That is our system.

    That Chalk’s would bring such a suit does them no credit, but then, they are desparate.

    As an aviation defense lawyer, I would be interested to know how this one comes out.

  • Dave Marion

    I agree with the other comments that there is insufficient information here to know what is really going on, but I am first struck by the simple fact that there is no such thing as a “Grumman Turbo Mallard.” The turbine conversion to the G-73 is a Frakes STC and in fact Frakes has owned the TC for radial-powered Mallard for a long time too. Grumman is not responsible for the mods or Chalk’s shoddy maintenance.
    This whole thing reminds me of previous travesties of aviation justice:
    There was the time that an Arizona operator made illegal modifications to a Super Cub, tried to take-off from a “closed” runway, crashed, and then sued Piper for designing an “unsafe” aircraft. And won!
    I also heard that Jessica Dubroff’s mother sued Cessna and Lycoming claiming the design of the C-177 Cardinal and O-360 were at fault because they wouldn’t fly safely 200 pounds overweight in weather so bad that airlines were not flying.
    It’s always someone else’s fault in America, isn’t it?

  • Bobby Picker

    I like most of the comments so far, but what scares me the most is if gets to a jury. The jury will not be of peers that understand aviation and can make heads or tails of all the engineering data, pictures, etc.that will be presented. Instead it will probably be of people with little to no knowledge or ability in this area. This has and continues to happen in cases daily in this country. Lawyers pick a jury for how they think a juror is going to be infulenced rather than to seek the truth inorder to get their desired result and monetary outcome. Some day this “legal system” will have to change. In any case if this goes to a jury I truely pray the the “truth” is revealed and “justice” is served.

  • Karl Sutterfield

    This lawsuit is bizarre: “Yeah, it’d been flying for 58 years but the design is defective.” When I figure out how to apply such grievously flawed engineering methods to software development, I’ll give Bill Gates a call.

  • John Cobb

    Dave Marion has his finger on the pulse of this fiasco.

    The PT 6 turbine conversion sliced the 600 hp radials out of the wing and replaced them with 720 shp with a REVERSIBLE propeller. I flew them for two and a half years (for Virgin Islands Seaplane Shuttle) and I was amazed at what they could withstand. We sometimes hit beta and the SALT water at the same instant — maybe the beta was first even. The original wing structure designers at Grumman had no idea that the wing would be power-stressed in the opposite direction. Even so, if there were cracks, maintenance is responsible for detection and proper repair. Sorry to see one of the old birds give up and take so many good people with it.

    There is however a designation for the Frakes Turbo Mallard: “G73T” is listed on my ATP card separate from the G73 as it is a different type rating.

  • Henry Niese

    How bout the Grumman Goose? Anybody know how many are still in operation?

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  • Survival Gear

    The lawsuit is self explanatory, it is just that aging aircrafts are really risky and sadly the government is still not doing much about it. There are many aircrafts that are so old; however they are still in use. There have been incidents where employees have even protested. The government is still not doing anything for the protection of the pilots, the staff and also the people travelling with them, the same situation is with the national air planes. The only hope is that they are at least taking proper precautions in stocking survival aids. I know a website that offers all kinds of survival kits that have helped many of my more adventurous friends.

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