Something unusual happened while I was at the AOPA Regional Fly-In in Groton, Connecticut: An air crash lawsuit at which I was scheduled to testify as an expert witness had settled on the eve of trial, leaving me unexpectedly with two unencumbered weeks on my hands. I was on the East Coast with my airplane and now could spend those two weeks however I pleased. For someone who hadn’t taken a vacation in years, this was cool!
I decided to spend the first week exploring the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and the second week visiting friends in Raleigh and family in Charlotte. I also made arrangements with a flight school in Raleigh to get a much-needed Flight Review and Instrument Proficiency Check.
The two-hour flight from Groton to the Outer Banks was uneventful, and the last part of it was beautifully scenic. I spent the week in a small waterfront Airbnb with a balcony overlooking the Albermarle Sound, a few miles south of Kill Devil Hills where Orville and Wilbur first flew in 1903. It was a marvelously enjoyable, productive, restorative week.
Early Sunday morning, I checked out of my Airbnb and drove my rental car back to the airport to fly to Raleigh. I turned in my rental car, taxied my plane to the departure end of the runway of the small untowered airport, picked up my IFR clearance from Cherry Point Approach Control, and performed the usual preflight runup.
Like most piston twins, my Cessna 310 has four magnetos—two for the left engine and two for the right—controlled by four toggle switches. The preflight runup involves turning the mag switches off one at a time and checking for excessive RPM drop, unacceptable roughness, or abnormal EGT indications. My routine is to sequence through the switches from left to right, shutting off the left engine’s left mag first and the right engine’s right mag last. I’ve done this thousands of times in the 30 years I’ve owned this airplane, and I must confess I perform it somewhat robotically. This time, things were different.
As I cycle the leftmost mag switch, the left engine quits cold. Yikes! I hastily flip the mag switch back on just in the nick of time to get it running again. I cycle through the remaining three mag switches and everything appears normal. I try the leftmost switch again. The left engine quit again.
Hmmm… Turning off the left mag kills the left engine. That means the right mag must not be producing any spark. Not good.
I briefly consider departing anyway—that’s why this airplane has two mags and two engines, right?—and instantly reject that idea. A wise aviation mentor once taught me that when making aeronautical decisions, I should always think about what the NTSB probable cause report would say. “PIC departed into instrument meteorological conditions with a known mechanical deficiency.” No way.
While taxiing back to the airport ramp, I think about the consequences of scrubbing the mission. It’s Sunday. I could order a replacement magneto first thing Monday morning. If I pay for overnight shipping, the mag might arrive by mid-day Tuesday, and the airplane might be back in the air by late Tuesday afternoon. I’ll have to cancel my Tuesday training appointment in Raleigh. I’ll need to find lodging and ground transportation for two more days on the Outer Banks. There’s a rental car waiting for me in Raleigh that’s probably too late to cancel…
Wait…I’m an A&P mechanic and my emergency toolkit is in the airplane’s wing locker. Maybe I can troubleshoot this mag problem and figure out a way to fix it. Maybe it’s something simple that doesn’t require ordering a replacement mag. Maybe I can improvise some battlefield repair…
I’m grasping at straws now, and realize the chances are somewhere between slim and none. But I’ve got to give it a shot, otherwise my plans for the coming week will fall like a row of dominoes.
An Open Door…
Approaching the transient tiedown ramp, I notice a large hangar off to my right with the door wide open. I can’t believe my luck: Someone’s open on Sunday! Maybe I can get some help? I taxi toward the open hangar and shut down on the ramp in front of it. The huge hangar appears largely empty. I don’t see any people or airplanes inside, just a big red roll-around toolbox and some miscellaneous ground support equipment. A beautiful Waco open-cockpit biplane is parked on the ramp nearby.
I uncowl the left engine nacelle to inspect the right magneto and its associated wiring, but find no obvious defects. I disconnect the P-lead from the right mag, but that doesn’t fix the problem, so the problem must be inside the magneto itself. Ugh!
I walk towards the open hangar door. As I get closer, I spot a fellow puttering around deep in the bowels of the hangar. I walk over to him and muster up my most friendly smile.
“Good morning! I’m Mike, and that’s my Cessna 310,” I say, pointing at my airplane on the ramp.
“Good morning,” replied the fellow with a smile, “I’m Sam.”
“Nice to meet you, Sam,” I said. “I’ve got a problem and I’m hoping maybe you can help me.”
I proceeded to describe my plans to fly to Raleigh and my decision to scrub the takeoff because the right mag on the left engine was inoperative during my preflight runup.
“The mag completely dead?” Sam asked. “Not just fouled plugs?”
“Dead as a doornail,” I said.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Sam said as I nodded in agreement.
“Would it be possible for me to pull the plane into your hangar, so I can work on the problem?” I inquired, gesturing at the huge, vacant structure.
“Nope,” Sam replied curtly. That wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but Sam was still smiling, so I persisted.
“Any chance I could use this toolbox,” I pointed at the big red roll-around, “while I’m working on my airplane on the ramp?”
“Nope, I can’t let you do that,” Sam said, still smiling. My puzzlement continued to grow at Sam’s unexpected non-cooperation. Then I had a thought.
“Sam, are you an A&P?” He nodded in the affirmative. “Would YOU like to try troubleshooting my magneto problem?” It occurred to me perhaps he was viewing me as competition.
“Nope, I don’t have time for that. Gotta take some tourists up for a biplane ride,” Sam said. “Besides, I don’t work on magnetos; I always send them out.” Sigh.
Ultimately, I managed to persuade Sam to lend me a ½-inch offset wrench and a small stepladder. With those and my emergency toolkit, I was able to remove the ailing magneto from the engine, disassemble it, resolve the problem, and put everything back together. Ultimately, I departed on my flight to Raleigh a few hours late, but my plans for the week remained unscathed.
Over the next few days, my mind kept returning to interaction with Sam. He seemed like such a nice fellow. Why did he act toward me in such an uncooperative fashion? What would it have cost him to let me use his empty hangar and his unused toolbox while he was up flying the Waco?
The only answer I could come up with was liticaphobia: the fear of being sued. Sam undoubtedly saw me as a lawsuit waiting to happen. There’s an old joke among aircraft mechanics that the most dangerous thing in aviation is an aircraft owner with a toolbox. I’m sure that in Sam’s mind, if he facilitated my hairbrained scheme of taking a magneto apart (something he stated he’d never do himself) and then anything bad happened, he would be contributorily negligent and vulnerable to civil litigation.
Sam is not alone. In my experience, most aircraft mechanics who work on GA aircraft have a siege mentality about the possibility of being sued. This fear casts a shadow over every decision they make. It causes them to practice “defensive maintenance”—performing more maintenance than justified on the grounds of safety-of-flight—and to be secretive about errors they make for fear that disclosure might lead to litigation.
Twenty-five years ago, before I became an A&P myself, I had an eerily similar experience at an airport in Northern California. I’d flown there for a business meeting, and when I returned to the airport dressed in coat and tie, I discovered to my horror that my right main tank had been misfueled with Jet A instead of 100LL. The fueling company had no A&Ps on staff, so I started contacting the various maintenance shops on the field looking for someone who would help me get my fuel system purged. Not one was willing to touch my airplane for fear of liability. Finally, I succeeded in persuading one A&P to agree to help me if I signed a blanket waiver agreeing to hold him harmless for anything that might go wrong. This mechanic then wanted to disassemble all sorts of stuff on my airplane that didn’t need to be disassembled in order to purge the system. Ultimately, I was successful in getting my airplane flyable again, but not without a terrible struggle.
These days, I do a good deal of expert witness work in air crash lawsuits, generally on the defense side defending mechanics, shops and aviation manufacturers against claims by air crash victims. I can testify firsthand that aviation is a horribly litigious field, with way too many lawsuits for my taste.
At the same time, I can also tell you that mechanics’ fear of being sued tends to be greatly overblown. Mechanics are rarely the target of air crash lawsuits, simply because few of them are high-net-worth individuals with enough assets to be worth suing. In the relatively few cases where mechanics and shops do get sued, these suits virtually always settle quickly within the limits of their liability insurance (typically $1 million), simply because the plaintiff lawyers understand that there’s no more money to be had. That’s why these lawsuits almost always target aircraft, engine, and component manufacturers who tend to have deeper pockets.
This paranoia about being sued is not limited to aviation. Doctors have been practicing “defensive medicine” for decades, especially those in high-risk specialties like ob/gyn and anesthesiology. Teachers have become frightened to discipline unruly kids or even give them hugs, while seesaws are disappearing from schoolyards for fear a kid might get injured. Have you purchased a ladder or bicycle or baby carriage lately and seen how many warning placards they now have? The fear level is getting ridiculous.
The incidence of US civil (tort) litigation has remained essentially flat per capita since 1975, but media coverage of litigation has skyrocketed, and that coverage is overwhelmingly skewed toward reporting cases involving huge damage awards. This has created the perception that the risk of being sued is much greater than it used to be, and that the consequences are frequently ruinous for the defendant. That’s seldom the case.
Look at the facts: According to a Harvard University study, for every 100 people hurt in an accident, 10 file a liability claim, 8 are settled within insurance limits, and only 2 actually get to court. Of those that make it to court, the plaintiff wins only 30% of the time, and in those cases the median damage award is $30,000, almost always covered by insurance.
So my appeal to shops and A&P mechanics is to maintain a reasonable amount of liability insurance ($1 million is generally adequate) and then do the right thing without paranoia about being sued if something goes wrong. Enough with the CYA already!