Dec. 18, 2011: One of the largest air crash disaster verdicts was handed down by a Philadelphia jury, which awarded $11.35 million in compensatory damages to Dr. Robert Marisco Jr. and his fiancee Heather Moran, both of Akron, Ohio, in an action against Winner Aviation Corp.
I must first state I am very sorry for their injuries and suffering in this crash. It seems an error chain is what caused the accident, as usual, and each link in that chain has a part to claim.
As the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA), we must address a concern we have expressed for years based on our country’s legal system, as well as a few other issues this affects.
More than 10 years ago, I can recall my predecessor, Brian Finnegan, setting up a scenario much like the accident that occurred on Aug. 8, 2007, and the jury trial afterward. As an A&P or a repair facility, you maintain an aircraft per Part 91 requirements, which means Service Bulletins (SB), Service Letters (SL) and Recommended Overhaul Times may not be required to be completed to release an aircraft as airworthy.
So the question is presented: “Did you tell the owner about all of the SLs, SBs, and overhaul recommendations due on their aircraft?”
More importantly to you, the Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic (A&P): Did you write it down and give it to them? If you just told them verbally, what would happen in court in front of a jury? The manufacturer recommends this maintenance be performed, and who better than the manufacturer to recommend that? Certainly, not you, the technician, right? Do you really think the jury would see it any other way?
You can look at the NTSB report NYC07LA187 and review their findings. But that is inadmissible in court per 49 C.F.R. §835.2: “No part of [the board’s accident report, which contains the board’s determinations, including the probable cause of an accident] may be admitted as evidence or used in any suit or action for damages growing out of any matter mentioned in such reports.” I understand and agree with this for the purpose of overall safety.
In the report you will see the front engine was maintaining power, although it was kept at the top of the green arc and not redlined as the emergency procedures allow. It also states, “The examinations of both engines, including the accessories, revealed extensive thermal damage. Of those items that could be examined, including the internal engine parts, there was no evidence of any anomaly to either engine that would have precluded normal operation prior to the accident.”
How about the CFRs? Here is what they say:
14 CFR Part 91.7 Civil Aircraft Airworthiness:
(a) No person may operate a civil aircraft unless it is in an airworthy condition.
(b) The pilot in command of a civil aircraft is responsible for determining whether that aircraft is in condition for safe flight. The pilot in command shall discontinue the flight when unairworthy mechanical, electrical, or structural conditions occur.
14 CFR Part 91.403 General:
(a) The owner or operator of an aircraft is primarily responsible for maintaining that aircraft in an airworthy condition, including compliance with Part 39 of this chapter.
Yes, you see who is responsible now — maybe. But our industry is based on trust; sometimes very understated, yet a very important trust — the trust between pilots and mechanics. Orville and Wilbur had Charles Taylor, who built their engine from scratch, and then they proceeded to be launched off a hill, trusting the engine would perform, and that started where we are today.
So back to what will it cost you — let’s make a the list. First of all, more documentation, either supplied by the owner or subscribed to by the maintenance provider. A facility like Winner Aviation almost certainly has a general aviation maintenance library that initially cost them more than $40,000 and annually renews for around $12,000. A responsible maintenance provider looking to be covered for all possible liabilities may need to add additional content to their libraries.
In addition to that is the research time. Traditionally an owner brings in a SB or SL to the maintenance provider and asks “Should I do this?” or “How much would it take to do this?” Now the maintenance provider, as has been suggested many years back, should research every SB, SL, and overhaul recommendation on each airframe, engine, propeller and component on the Part 91 aircraft — not just the ones associated with Airworthiness Directives (AD). Then the maintenance provider must record this on documentation given to the aircraft owner and operator. This adds more expense, which must be passed on as a business to the customer. The price of clear documented communication: $11.35 million.
There is another point I would like to address. One of the attorneys for Dr. Marsico and Ms. Moran said: “By reaching this verdict, the jury sends an important message to the airplane repair community — safety of flight for pilots and their passengers is of utmost importance and there can be no shortcomings whatsoever when it comes to the care, inspection, and maintenance of airplanes; and that those who endanger the lives of the flying public will be held accountable for their misconduct.”
If you really believe any licensed aircraft maintenance professional doesn’t think that the safety of flight of that aircraft isn’t of the utmost importance to them, you are very wrong. Since being involved in aircraft maintenance for more than 30 years, personally working with more than 100 A&Ps at different facilities and speaking to more than several thousand in different venues, I have never met anyone to make me think differently.
There are many who leave the industry before they arrive. At Part 147 schools the responsibility of being a certificated mechanic is made clear. If the student doesn’t like what they hear, they leave right there.
As an aircraft owner you stay with a shop or individual because of the unspoken trust and feeling of responsibility a professional certificated mechanic bestows in you.
I bring all of this up because of the multiple issues it covers — liability, responsibility, cost, and education, including education of the general public regarding who an aircraft mechanic is. They are not grease monkeys who come across like the representation of Lowell on the old television program “Wings.” A&Ps have worked on aircraft for relatively low pay and little recognition for many years. Our satisfaction comes from working on complicated machines that are fast and sleek. Most of all, they fly. We proudly keep them that way safely!
We have spent 1,900 hours or more just to take and pass three written tests, three oral exams, and three practical (hands-on) exams. Single-engine pilots at the controls of their aircraft took about 60 hours and only one of each test, written, oral, and practical, to become a licensed pilot. Mechanics start their careers with 30 times that! Individuals who have earned bachelor degrees only spent around 1,700 hours to get their degrees and have not passed any ultimate final exams covering their entire education. A&Ps also are part of the only maintenance profession certified by the federal government!
Please remember to thank an aircraft mechanic once in a while. Failure is not an option to them — their confidence comes from their competence. If they were not confident, they couldn’t sleep at night. Remember we are professional from the ground up!
And be ready for some changes to come as a pilot as this lawsuit gets more attention in the industry.
Dale Forton is president of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA). Find out more about PAMA at PAMA.org
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