June 18, 2014 — An investigation by USA Today has found numerous instances in which general aviation crashes and deaths were caused by defective parts or dangerous designs.
In the last 50 years, nearly 45,000 people have been killed in private planes and helicopters. Federal investigators blame pilot error for 86% of crashes, but USA Today calls this statistic into question. They say safety hazards have persisted for decades as manufacturers covered up problems, lied to federal regulators, and failed to correct known problems.
Many crashes occurred in aircraft that are exempt from current aviation safety standards because of a policy known as “grandfathering.” This allows manufacturers to build brand-new aircraft with safety standards from when the aircraft was originally designed. Some of the most popular small airplanes were designed in the 1950s and 60s — even before seatbelts were required.
USA Today found numerous examples of aircraft manufacturers failing to address safety problems. Since 1992, low-impact helicopter crashes have killed 79 people and injured 28. Crash-resistant fuel tanks have been available since the 1970s, but many manufacturers have not added them on new helicopters due to cost.
Fore example, the R-44 helicopter has two aluminum fuel tanks on either side of a 3-inch thick steel mast that controls the rotor. If the helicopter rolls, the fuel tank can rupture and spurt fuel into the cockpit, increasing the risk of a fire. Although the problem was identified in the 1990s, it was not until 2009 that the manufacturer started selling a safer fuel-tank bladder.
Since 1994, investigators from USA Today found 80 lawsuits involving 215 general-aviation deaths that resulted in a manufacturer paying a settlement or damages of at least $1 million.
One of the largest verdicts, $26 million against Lycoming, was awarded after a judge found that the company was failing to provide plaintiffs’ attorneys with documents. The problem was traced to carburetors that had been causing mid-air engine failures since at least 1963. Unfortunately, the carburetor remains on many aircraft and crashes continue to occur. In 2005, a young girl was severely scarred and her family members died in a plane crash that was blamed on the defective part.
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