The Dangers of Small Planes and Helicopters

In August 2015, two small planes collided near a San Diego airport, killing all four people on board. Deaths and serious injuries from small-aircraft crashes are growing, despite constant advances in aircraft technology. Our team of airplane accident attorneys represents clients injured in all types of aviation accidents, and offer free case reviews to anyone with questions about this area of law.

Aviation law encompasses major air carriers like United and Delta, small private planes, helicopters, hang gliders and other hobby crafts, tour or charter flights, medical aircrafts, and large business jets.

An estimated 45,000 people have died in private plane and helicopter crashes over the last 50 years, which is nine times the amount of people killed in major airline accidents. More often than not, official investigations point to pilot error as the cause of these crashes, however, recent journalist investigations show accidents are repeatedly caused by defective and dangerous parts.

USA TODAY found numerous defects that have gone unfixed for years while manufacturers hid problems from the public and the government. Manufacturers repeatedly refused to acknowledge or recall parts known to be dangerous, leaving thousands of aircrafts vulnerable to malfunctioning. These manufacturers have paid hundreds of millions in settlements with death and injury victims.

Companies like Robinson Helicopter, Lycoming Enginges, Cessna Aircraft, Bell Helicopter and Mitsubishi Aircraft, have been found liable for these accidents. In a case against Cessna, one Florida judge wrote that the company knew about a fatal defect for many years and filed to fix it, ultimately finding it guilty of a reckless disregard to human life.

Among the defects USA TODAY unearthed include:

  • Leaky airplane exhaust systems, leading to engine fires
  • Pilot seats that unexpectedly slide backward
  • Faulty ice-protection systems that fail to warn pilots of dangerous buildup and fail to keep wings clean during flight
  • Helicopter fuel tanks that easily rupture and catch fire
  • Faulty helicopter blades that separate from masts or cut through tails

In another case in Iowa, three people were killed and one was seriously injured after a four-seat Piper Cherokee crashed into a field. The family of those killed brought a lawsuit against the plane’s engine maker, Lycoming, and carburetor maker, Precision Airmotive. Both companies blamed the pilot for the crash, however, during trial plaintiffs showed that Precision received over 100 defective carburetor claims. Evidence further showed Lycoming continued to use the knowingly defective carburetors, despite several plane crashes.

The judge in that case ruled against Precision and Lycoming, and the family ultimately secured a $19 million settlement.

On average, there are about three private plane or helicopter crashes per day. This amounts to thousands of accidents and hundreds of deaths every year. No other country in the world has this kind of death or crash rates, thanks largely to a powerful aviation lobby, which persuaded Congress to ban death and injury lawsuits involving planes and helicopters more than 18 years old. That is about three-quarters of the country’s private planes and helicopters.

Importantly, the law does allow claims against manufacturers that intentionally hid defects, and claims involving newer parts in older aircrafts. Helicopter fires from defective fuel tanks are notoriously prevalent in courtrooms. These cases are widely publicized because deaths occur after minor crashes and rollovers that would not otherwise kill the occupants. The impact ruptures helicopter fuel thanks and ignites a fire, causing occupants to burn to death or die of smoke inhalation.

Crash-resistant fuel tanks were invented in the early 1970s. Many helicopter manufacturers do not bother to include these to keep costs down. One company even recommended occupants wear fire-retardant suits to protect themselves instead.

There are numerous examples of similar safety problems that persist for decades as companies sit by and watch. Not only do they fail to correct defects or provide solutions, but they willingly blame crashes on pilot error in court. In a trial involving Cessna's defective seat sliders, the company argued that the crashes were caused by pilots failing to maintain seats or check to secure seats before takeoff. Cessna has known about the sliding defects since the 1960s.

Our team of aviation accident lawyers has been fighting on behalf of injured victims and their families for 30 years. If you or someone you love was seriously hurt or killed in a plane, helicopter or hang-gliding accident, contact us for a free case review.

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