USA Today conducted an in-depth investigation into the reasons behind general aviation crashes involving small aircraft like helicopters and private planes. Their investigation revealed that the primary cause for these accidents is not “pilot error” which is the FAA’s go-to response for these events, instead there are defective parts and manufacturing mistakes that are at the heart of these disasters.
On Easter Sunday 2005, Andy Bryan took himself and his family on what should have been a short sightseeing tour in Iowa in a four-seat Piper Cherokee. Bryan piloted the plane down the runway, the aircraft “elevated briefly and plunged into a field where it exploded into flames.” Three of the occupants were killed in the crash, an eight year old girl suffered severe burns. The manufacturing company that made the plane and federal investigators claimed that Bryan “lost control” and that resulted in the crash. However, according to company and government records, a faulty carburetor was to blame.
Almost 45,000 people have died from general aviation accidents in the last fifty years, and federal investigators claim the cause is “pilot error” 86% of the time. USA Today revealed their investigation found that in a majority of cases, the real cause of these accidents is faulty parts and bad designs.
Among the defective parts and causes of major accidents are: Helicopter fuel tanks that can easily rupture in a crash causing the vehicle to become an inferno, pilot seats that can slide backwards unexpectedly causing the pilot to lose grip on his controls, carburetors that can either flood or starve the engine of fuel causing engine failures in the air since 1963, and a list of other manufacturing defects and problems. But federal investigators continue to blame these events on pilot error.
Some of these defective parts have been in use for decades, and are still being used, “because manufacturers refused to acknowledge or recall the suspect parts or issued a limited recall that left dangerous components in hundreds of aircraft.”
The manufacturers that USA Today claims to be at the heart of most of these incidents are Cessna Aircraft, Robinson Helicopter, Mitsubishi Aircraft, Bell Helicopter, and Lycoming Engines. Each of these manufacturers have been found liable for fatal accidents and have been ordered by civil-court judges to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to plaintiffs.
Furthermore, some of these manufacturers have withheld information and been held in contempt of court for lying or refusing to produce documents. An example of this is pointed out in USA Today’s Part 1 of their report: the manufacturer of a defective carburetor in the 1970s, Borg-Warner. Borg-Warner company memos pointed to a problem with a small part in the carburetor called a “float,” that caused engine failure by flooding the carburetor with fuel. However, instead of conducting an expensive recall they told the FAA that “pilots caused the problems by using automotive gas instead of aviation fuel.” In 1990, an Alaskan Judge awarded the widow of man killed in a crash involving the defective component $6.7 million. The Superior Court wrote that that statement to the FAA was, in fact, false, and the company’s failure to disclose the actual cause was “outrageous conduct.”