Liability: The Price We Pay

courtroom

As large as the aviation industry looks to those on the outside, once you’re on the other side of the fence, it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s a very small world. One of the big challenges facing that world has been from product liability issues.

The $100 screw. The $9.00 gallon of fuel. The $5,000 part that costs $50 at a local hardware store. We’ve all seen it. I recall the day a friend told me the seat back for my Pitts S-2B, which is literally a small flat piece of ordinary plywood, cost something like $600. I’m not averse to parts manufacturers turning a profit, but that left my mouth hanging open. My friend? He just shrugged and walked away, as though this was ordinary and normal. The saddest part is that I realized he was right. It is.

Liability concerns are a major expense and motivator for many industries. That’s why Superman costumes come with warnings that “the cape does not enable the wearer to fly”, Zippo cautions users not to ignite the lighter in your face, and irons are sold with tags advising against ironing clothes while they’re being worn. But for general aviation, this sort of thing is dragging the lot of us down as surely as a cement block tossed into the murky waters of the East River.

The classic example of this phenomenon can be seen in the high cost for new products like airplanes. Look at the sharp rise in the price of a new Skyhawk over the past thirty years. The first one was built in 1955, so the research and development costs for this model must have been recouped decades ago. A new Bonanza is a cool million. Low production volumes and high liability costs — a chicken and egg pair if there ever was one — are prime culprits for that inflation.

In fact, for about a decade, the general aviation industry essentially stopped producing new piston airplanes. From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, product liability was such that nearly every major OEM exited the business. The insurance costs rose, the manufacturers had no choice but to pass that on to the consumer, who was summarily priced out of the market. Sales fell, per-unit liability costs rose further, and the cycle spiraled downward until even those companies which still had an operating production line were only turning out a handful of airplanes per year.

The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 helped somewhat. Aircraft manufacturers started producing planes again. The Cirrus, DiamondStar, Columbia, and other such advanced aircraft were brought to market. New avionics systems were developed. But the liability problem never went away. Frivolous lawsuits still abound, grinding away at our diminished world like a wood chipper consuming a sturdy log. Manufacturers have been sued for things as idiotic as not telling a pilot that the engine wouldn’t operate without fuel. I don’t have to tell you how this lunacy looks to people from other countries, do I?

I often wonder, what would an aircraft like the RV-6 cost if it was certified? You can buy one for as little as $45,000 today. Speaking of Amateur-Built aircraft, liability is one of the primary reasons advancements such as electronic ignition proliferate in the E-AB world when they’re almost unheard of in aircraft with a standard airworthiness certificate.

Mike Busch has penned many articles about the ways liability concerns drive decisions in the maintenance business. The result? Lower efficiency, higher cost, and at times even a decrease in the level of safety that is supposedly paramount. But it goes beyond that. Many products which would otherwise be brought to market are not because liability issues tilt the scale away from taking that risk in the first place.

Even proven, well-established products are sometimes lost to this phenomenon. Seven years ago, the largest manufacturer of aircraft carburetors, Precision Airmotive, abruptly decided to stop making, selling, and supporting them. In a letter to customers on their web site, they wrote:

Precision Airmotive LLC has discontinued sales of all float carburetors and component parts as of November 1, 2007. This unfortunate situation is a result of our inability to obtain product liability insurance for the product line. Precision Airmotive LLC and its 43 employees currently manufacture and support the float carburetors used in nearly all carbureted general aviation aircraft flying today. Precision has been the manufacturers of these carburetors since 1990. These FAA-approved carburetors were designed as early as the 1930s and continue to fly over a million flight hours a year. After decades of service, the reliability of these carburetors speaks for itself.

Nonetheless, Precision has seen its liability insurance premiums rise dramatically, to the point that the premium now exceeds the total sales dollars for this entire product line. In the past, we have absorbed that cost, with the hope that the aviation industry as a whole would be able to help address this issue faced by Precision Airmotive, as well as many other small aviation companies. Our efforts have been unsuccessful.

This year, despite the decades of reliable service and despite the design approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, Precision Airmotive has been unable to obtain product liability insurance for the carburetor product line. While we firmly believe that the product is safe, as does the FAA, and well-supported by dedicated people both at Precision and at our independent product support centers, unfortunately the litigation costs for defending the carburetor in court are unsustainable for a small business such as Precision.

Even if you don’t own an airplane, you’ve probably noticed that aircraft rental is prohibitively difficult and expensive. Companies like OpenAirplane are trying to make a dent in this formidable problem, but many aircraft types simply cannot be rented at all for solo flight anymore. Seaplanes, aerobatic aircraft, twins, turbines, and many other types might as well not exist unless you have the cash to buy them outright. And those that are still rented require extensive checkouts, form filling, and a large expenditure of time, money and energy. Why? To check every possible box off when it comes to liability. The manager of one FBO here in Southern California told me in no uncertain terms that it wouldn’t matter if Bob Hoover himself walked through the door, he wouldn’t get one iota of consideration in that regard. Does that sound right to you?

There’s an obvious answer here. If you’re thinking tort reform, you’re only half-right. Suing manufacturers for accidents that are clearly not their fault simply because the plaintiff knows they’ll settle is only ensuring the next generation won’t be able to fly. The real solution is to — in the words of a pilot I know — put on our big-boy britches and come to terms with the fact that life in general, and aviation in particular, involves risk. From the Doolittle Raiders to the folks at Cirrus Aircraft, history shows over and over again that risk is a part of every successful venture. We’d all love to live in a world where there is no risk, where following the dictates of Title 14 would ensure nothing ever goes wrong and nobody ever gets hurt. It’s a fallacy.

Crushing liability costs aren’t limited to carbs. And many parts of our airplanes are manufactured by a very small number of companies. Prop governors come to mind. Vacuum pumps. Brakes. Fasteners. If one firm is having trouble staying in business, odds are the others might be as well. It doesn’t portend a rosy future for the industry, especially when you consider that many of the advances we now enjoy came from small companies just like Precision Airmotive.

Sure, with Experimentals you have more freedom to put what you want on your aircraft. But many of the components on experimental aircraft are certified anyway. Most of them essentially have certified engines, props, skins, wiring, brakes, tires, fasteners, etc. This liability issue affects everyone regardless of what it says on the plane’s airworthiness certificate. This sort of thing isn’t limited to aviation. But GA is particularly vulnerable to abuse because of the implication that anyone involved in it must have deep pockets. The end result is a case like this one, where a jury awarded $480 million verdict against an aircraft manufacturer even though the NTSB indicated pilot error was the cause.

Liability concerns hurt everyone in aviation, not just those with reciprocating single-engines. I’ll give you one example from the corporate and charter business that I work in: time and time again, thousands of dollars of catering from one of our charter flights will go untouched by the passengers. We’ll land at our destination with a eighty pounds of beautifully packaged and prepared food. Five-star presentation of the highest-quality and healthiest food you’ll see anywhere.

At the same time, just beyond the airport fence are people who go to bed hungry. Logic dictates that we might want to put two and two together. But because the operators and customers of these aircraft are high net worth individuals who would certainly find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit at the first indication of food poisoning or other malady, load after load of this food goes into the trash every single day all across the country. Over the past three years I’d imagine the total weight of the food from flights I’ve flown that went into the trash would total a couple of tons.

While lawsuits and courtrooms have their place, I personally think it’s high time our society acknowledged the fact that safety does not equate an absence of risk. Failure to do so is putting us, our industry, our economy, and even our way of life at risk. That’s the cost of the society we’ve built. Is it worth it?


This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

No Apologies

A simple Cub and a grass runway.  This is flying!

Did you know there are more PhDs in the United States than there are pilots? It’s true. Few individuals with a doctorate are apologetic or shy about their achievement. On the contrary, many of them go so far as to attach this educational status to their very identity, adding it to their name, email signature, business cards, and more. It’s a big deal and they’re all too happy to let people know about it.

Since earning a pilot certificate places one in even more rarefied heights, it always surprises me to hear an aviator speak in apologetic terms about their flying. Typically it happens when they’re with others whom they perceive to be of higher achievement — an airline or military pilot, for example. They’ll say “oh, my plane’s just an old 152″. Or “I only have a sport pilot certificate”. I hate to see that. Whether the subject is their aircraft, training, or experience, there’s no cause for apologies. Quite the opposite. Don’t be fooled by the number of ratings on a pilot’s certificate, or assume they’re a better aviator because their logbook has more hours than yours. The worst physician in the world still managed to earn a Doctor of Medicine degree.

Brent Owens (aka Fixed Wing Buddha) recently wrote about this:

Let me go on record. If you are flying, no matter what kind of airplane, you should hold your head high. You are among a tiny population of people and you have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it is ludicrous to think otherwise. In a sea of grounded mortals, we have a very special skill that lets us command the air. It doesn’t get much cooler than that, and it doesn’t matter what kind of aerial conveyance you choose.

In fact, I’d take it a step further. The “higher” a pilot goes in the food chain, the less actual flying they’re likely to do. I bet a low-time rag-wing tailwheel pilot could land my Gulfstream a lot better than the average jet pilot could land that taildragger. But for some reason we create this pecking order which is dictated by the size, cost, and speed of the aircraft we fly.

It’s human nature to equate bigger with better — the advertising industry is based on it — but it’s completely illogical. In fact, as the years go by I find my affinity for smaller, simpler, less expensive planes only grows. The Cub, the Citabria, the RV-3. These airplanes provide a more visceral connection between man, machine, and nature. They’re simpler and less expensive to buy, own, and maintain. And they’re not used for practical purposes so much as just enjoying the art of flying. A stick and a throttle. That’s it.

There was a story — I can’t seem to find it now — about an instructor bumping around the pattern with a student in the summer heat in a modest Cessna. He looks up, sees a turboprop flying thousands of feet above, and muses about how lucky those guys have it to be in smooth, fast, air conditioned comfort. The guys in the turboprop notice a 747 flying overhead, up in the stratosphere, and can’t think about much beyond moving up to a “real airplane” that flies a lot faster than 250 knots. Oh, to have lavatories, flight attendants, and travel the world! The bored 747 pilot, on the other hand, looks waaaay down at an airport below, sees a little Cessna flying around the pattern and says to his co-pilot, “Boy that guy’s lucky — I can’t wait to retire and get back to some REAL flying!”

Larger airplanes are just that: larger. Sitting in pressurized comfort at FL450 might seem like the end all/be all to those who fly more “modest” equipment, but I assure you it’s more system management than actual hands-on-the-controls flying. It can take on an antiseptic quality.

And doing the same thing day after day after day? I’ve met more than a few burned-out jet pilots for whom flying is no longer a passion or joy. It has been reduced to a job, nothing more. It’s sad, because they started out with that fire in their belly, that urge to hang out at the airport all day every day. And now? There’s nothing they’d rather do than get away from it all. That’s why I was extremely careful when I started flying professionally. It’s easy to allow the enthusiasm for a shiny jet to lead a person down that unfortunate path.

You didn’t ask for my advice, but I’m going to give it to you anyway. I see a lot of pilots who are always looking to the “next thing” rather than enjoying where they are right now. When they’re in a single, they’re totally focused to jumping into a retractable. Once they fly one, it’s all about moving into a twin. If they’re flying a recip, life seems like it will be “perfect” once they start flying the turboprop. Once they’re flying that, they’re already obsessed with a jet. It makes me sad, because their career will be over before they know it, and they’re well on the path to missing the whole thing.

So no matter what you fly, and whether you do it recreationally or professionally, be proud of your steed, and most of all enjoy every minute in the air. The clock is ticking; every day brings us closer to our final flight. We may not know when that door will close, but rest assured it eventually will. What a shame it would be to reach the end of the road and realize we never savored the journey.

The Ab Initio Flaw

For decades, Japan Airlines ran an ab initio flight school in Napa, CA using Beech Bonanzas

Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. Where the pilot shortage debate is concerned, that’s definitely true. More than one industry veteran has wryly noted the “impending pilot shortages” of every decade since the Second World War. And considering the number of pilots trained during that conflict, you could say the shortage history goes back a lot further. How about to the very dawn of powered flight? I mean, Wilbur and Orville could have saved themselves tremendous time and money if only they’d had an experienced instructor to guide them!

Every “pilot shortage” article, blog post, and discussion I’ve seen centers around short-term hiring trends and possible improvements in salary and benefits for aviators. Nobody asked my opinion, but for what it’s worth, it seems both clear and logical that the regional airlines are hurting for pilots. The pay and working conditions at those companies are horrific. Major airlines will probably never have trouble attracting people, however. I don’t know if that qualifies as a pilot shortage. I tend to think it does not. It’s more of a shortage of people who are willing to participate like lab rats in a Part 121 industry cost-cutting experiment.

What the pilot shortage mishegas really has me thinking about is the long-term possibility of ab-initio schemes migrating to the United States and what a profoundly bad thing that would be for aviation at every level.

According to Wikipedia, “ab initio is a Latin term meaning ‘from the beginning’ and is derived from the Latin ab (‘from’) + initio, ablative singular of initium (‘beginning’)”. In aviation, it refers to a method of training pilots. In fact, it’s the de facto technique in use for the majority of airlines around the world. Essentially, foreign airlines will hire people off the street who have no flight time or experience. They are shepherded through the various ratings and certificates necessary to fly an Boeing or Airbus while on the airline’s payroll.

This might sound like a brilliant idea — and to an airline, it probably is. Imagine, no bad habits or “we did it this way at my last job” issues, just well-trained worker bees who have been indoctrinated from day one as multi-pilot airline crew members.

I don’t know if the airlines love ab initio or not. What I do know is that non-U.S. airlines use it because there’s no other choice. The fertile, Mesopotamian breeding ground of flying experience we call general aviation simply does not exist in those countries. Without GA’s infrastructure, there are no light aircraft, flight schools, mechanics, or small airports where aspiring pilots can learn to fly. Those who do manage to get such experience more often than not get it here in the United States.

To put it another way, the “pilot shortage” has been going on in foreign countries since the dawn of aviation, and ab initio is the way they’ve solved the problem in most places.

So what’s my beef with this method of training? To put it simply, in an era of atrophying pilot skills, ab-initio is going to make a bad problem worse. While it’s a proven way of ensuring a steady supply of labor, ab initio also produces a relatively narrow pilot who is trained from day one to do a single thing: fly an airliner. These airline programs don’t expose trainees to high Gs, aerobatics, gliders, sea planes, banner towing, tailwheels, instructing, or any of the other stuff that helps create a well-rounded aviator.

If airlines in the U.S. adopt the ab initio system, the pilots they hire will only experience things that are a) legally required, and b) directly applicable to flying a modern, automated airliner. Nothing else. After all, an airline will only invest what’s necessary to do the job. It’s a business decision. And in an era of cutthroat competition and razor thin profit margins, who could blame them?

The problem is, all those crap jobs young fliers complain about (and veterans seem to look back on with a degree of fondness) are vital seasoning for a pilot. He or she is learning to make command decisions, interact with employers and customers, and generally figure out the art of flying. It’s developing that spidey sense, taking a few hard knocks in the industry, and learning to distinguish between safe and legal.

These years don’t pay well where one’s bank account is concerned, but they are create a different type of wealth, one that’s often invisible and can prove vital when equipment stops working, weather is worse than forecast, or the holes in your Swiss cheese model start to line up.

Thus far, airline ab initio programs haven’t been a major part of the landscape here in the U.S. because our aviation sector is fairly robust. We are blessed with flying jobs which build the experience, skill, and time necessary for larger, more complex aircraft. But it’s easy to see why it might become an attractive option for airlines. For one thing, that darn pilot shortage. The cost of flying has risen dramatically over the past decade while the benefits (read: money) remain too low for too long. Airlines can cure the shortage by training pilots from zero hours… but at what cost?

Coming up through the ranks used to mean you were almost certain to be exposed to some of those elements. That’s why I believe ab initio would be just one more nail in the coffin of U.S. aviation, one more brick in the road of turning us into Europe. While I like visiting The Continent, I do not envy the size or scope of their aviation sector and sincerely hope we don’t go down that path.

Addendum

Apparently I’m not the only one with ab initio on my mind. The day before the deadline for this post, AVweb reported on a major announcement from Boeing:

Now, with its subsidiary company Jeppesen, [Boeing] will undertake ab initio airline pilot training to provide a supply of pilots with an “Airline Transport Pilot License” (certificate in the U.S.) and a Boeing type rating who “will be ready to move into the first officer’s seat,” according to Sherry Carbary, vice president of flight services.

Boeing’s ab initio training program is divided into two parts. The first, run by Jeppesen, will take an applicant—referred to as a cadet—who must hold a first-class medical at the time of application, and put her or him through a screening process. Those who pass will go through 12-18 months of flight training, resulting in, according to David Wright, director of general aviation training, an Airline Transport Pilot License. The second phase involves the cadet going to a Boeing facility for another two months of training where she or he gets a first exposure to a full-motion jet simulator, and that will result in a type rating in a Boeing jet. Wright said that cadets will come out of the $100,000-$150,000 program with 200-250 hours of flying time and will be ready to go into the right seat of an airliner.

Boeing jets are operated by major airlines, not regionals. An American pilot would typically sport several thousand of hours of flight experience before being hired there. Now Boeing is proposing to put 200 hour pilots into their airplanes on a worldwide basis. That won’t fly (yet) in the U.S., where 1,500 hours is currently required for an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. But I believe the ab inito trend bodes ill for airlines and general aviation alike.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

Takeoff Briefings for Singles

baron-off-airport

I wonder why takeoff briefings are not typically taught or performed in single-engine airplanes. I think they should be, because they’re as important — if not more so — in a single than the multi-engine airplanes where they’ve long been standard procedure.

Air Safety Institute data show that regardless of category and class, the takeoff and landing phases are where most accidents occur. It’s true of the light GA airplanes you and I are so passionate about, and even more so for the Gulfstream IV I fly at work. In fact, since the G-IV went into service in 1987, there have only been four fatal accidents, but all of them were during takeoff or landing.

While thinking through the particulars of a low-altitude emergency prior to takeoff won’t help in every scenario, it certainly underscores the hazards inherent in flying close to the ground. A thoughtful takeoff briefing is important because emergencies and mechanical failures are as common and dangerous in singles as in twins. Things happen quickly when the engine quits at low altitude. Doesn’t it makes sense that the time to prepare for emergent situations is well before venturing into situations where they might occur?

I fly a wide variety of aircraft, and that provides additional rationale for a takeoff briefing because proper procedures vary from from one airplane (and situation) to another. For example, when flying a Cirrus, the ballistic recovery parachute is an option and a briefing helps reinforce when and where it will be used. On the other hand, if I’m flying a multi-engine recip, I’d probably want to keep flying if an engine quit after lift-off. But even in a typical GA single, there are still lots of decisions to make: where to land, which way to turn, when you can safety make a turnaround, etc. An intelligent pilot will consider the wind direction & velocity, runways in use, traffic conflicts, and more.

So why aren’t single engine pilots exposed to this during training? For one thing, today’s teaching methodology is based on material that’s been in use for half a century. Anyone who’s taken an FAA knowledge test can tell you that. Back then, airspace was simple, open fields were everywhere, and it was assumed you’d just glide down to landing. Today? It ain’t necessarily so.

Consider my neighborhood. At Santa Monica, you practically touch the roof of a gas station before reaching the numbers for runway 21. At Compton, homes are built so close to the field that residents can count the rivets dotting the underbelly of a landing aircraft’s fuselage. Airports like Hawthorne and Fullerton? Good luck. Obstacles in every direction, including some of the most densely populated parts of Southern California.

You might be thinking “Ah, my airport is nothing like that!”. Maybe so, but even if you’re based at a rural field, you probably fly to urban or mountainous airports from time to time. Something else to consider: if I’ve learned one thing from my seventeen years of flying, it’s that real world failures don’t always mimic our training. I’ve had several emergency situations, but not one of them was anything like the standard training scenarios.

The most common simulated emergency is a total engine failure. In reality, powerplant failures are often partial. You’ll lose one cylinder, but the rest still function. The decision making process is more complex in those cases. You have a partial power loss, but it’s entirely possible that amidst the vibration you’ll have enough power to maintain level flight. Do you fly around the pattern? Nurse it up high enough to turn around? Pull the power and land on the remaining runway? You’ve only got one chance to get it right. The pilot most likely to do that is the one who has thought these things through.

Because they’ve been around for half a century, you’d imagine the takeoff briefing would be pretty much set in stone, but even today they undergo frequent modification. Gulfstream recently changed it’s philosophy on this and emphatically states that “there is no such thing as a standard briefing”. I wholeheartedly agree with that approach. Aircraft weight, wind, weather conditions, alternate options, and many other variables are always changing. Note that none of those factors are limited to multi-engine transport-cateogry jets — they are equally applicable to a single engine trainer.

What we’re really talking about here is the role of a pilot. Those who know me can attest to my affinity for high quality stick-and-rudder skills. But anyone can learn to physically maneuver an airplane. The safest pilots are the ones who manage risk effectively. That means having a contingency plan for as many “what-ifs” as possible before shoving the throttle forward for takeoff.

We Don’t Train For That

Gulfstream G550 simulator

The tragic Gulfstream IV accident in Boston has been on my mind lately, partly because I fly that aircraft, but also because the facts of the case are disquieting.

While I’m not interested in speculating about the cause, I don’t mind discussing factual information that the NTSB has already released to the public. And one of the initial details they provided was that the airplane reached takeoff speed but the pilot flying was not able to raise the nose (or “rotate”, in jet parlance).

My first thought after hearing this? “We don’t train for that.” Every scenario covered during initial and recurrent training — whether in the simulator or the classroom — is based on one of two sequences: a malfunction prior to V1, in which case we stop, or a malfunction after V1, in which case we continue the takeoff and deal with the problem in the air. As far as I know, every multi-engine jet is operated the same way.

But nowhere is there any discussion or training on what to do if you reach the takeoff decision speed (V1), elect to continue, reach Vr, and are then unable to make the airplane fly. You’re forced into doing something that years of training has taught you to never do: blow past V1, Vr, V2, and then attempt an abort.

In this case, the airplane reached 165 knots — about 45 knots beyond the takeoff/abort decision speed. To call that uncharted territory would be generous. Meanwhile, thirty tons of metal and fuel is hurtling down the runway at nearly a football field per second.

We just don’t train for it. But maybe we should. Perhaps instead of focusing on simple engine failures we ought to look at the things that are causing accidents and add them to a database of training scenarios which can be enacted in the simulator without prior notice. Of course, this would have to be a no-jeopardy situation for the pilots. This wouldn’t be a test, it would be a learning experience based on real-world situations encountered by pilots flying actual airplanes. In some cases there’s no good solution, but even then I believe there are valuable things to be learned.

In the case of the Gulfstream IV, there have been four fatal accidents since the aircraft went into service more than a quarter of a century ago. As many news publications have noted, that’s not a bad record. But all four have something in common: each occurred on the ground.

  • October 30, 1996: a Gulfstream IV crashed during takeoff after the pilots lose control during a gusting crosswind.
  • February 12, 2012: a Gulfstream IV overran the 2,000 meter long runway at Bukavu-Kamenbe
  • July 13, 2012: a G-IV on a repositioning flight in southern France departs the runway during landing and broke apart after hitting a stand of trees.
  • May 31, 2014: the Gulfstream accident in Boston

In the few years that I’ve been flying this outstanding aircraft, I’ve seen a variety of odd things happen, from preflight brake system anomalies to flaps that wouldn’t deploy when the airplane was cold-soaked to a “main entry door” annunciation at 45,000 feet (believe me, that gets your attention!).

This isn’t to say the G-IV is an unsafe airplane. Far from it. But like most aircraft, it’s a highly complex piece of machinery with tens of thousands of individual parts. All sorts of tribal knowledge comes from instructors and line pilots during recurrent training. With each anomaly related to us in class, I always end up thinking to myself “we should run that scenario in the simulator”.

Cases like United 232, Apollo 13, Air France 447, and US Air 1549 prove time and time again that not every failure is covered by training or checklists. Corporate/charter aviation is already pretty safe… but perhaps we can do even better.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.