Category: Commentaries

I have recently reviewed a number of discount fuel contracts, usually for jet aircraft, and imbedded in them is a surprise about which most owners and their pilots are completely unaware.

Every one of the contracts I read require the aircraft owner to release, indemnify and hold harmless not only the discount fuel company but also the FBO who supplies the fuel from everything, whether negligence or not and regardless of the consequences.

So if an FBO mis-fuels your aircraft or puts fuel full of contaminants in your airplane and you crash, you will be surprised, no doubt posthumously, that you have voided your insurance coverage by agreeing to relieve the FBO of any responsibility and on top of that have no remedy against either the FBO or discount fuel company.

What’s worse is the hold harmless provisions also make you liable for the FBO or discount fuel company’s attorneys’ fees. That could run into the millions of dollars and that won’t be covered either.

Oh, and in case you haven’t thought of it, the release, indemnity and hold harmless also means that when the fuel truck takes your right wing off on the ramp, you have agreed to release, indemnify and hold harmless the discount fuel company and FBO for that too.

When your insurance company gets wind of the contract you signed, without asking whether it wished to assume the release, indemnity and hold harmless you agreed to, the first notice you get will be a declination of coverage.

I brought this to the attention of a certain aircraft owners and pilots group who were touting the benefits of the discount fuel deal and all of them hadn’t ever read the contract they signed nor had they sent it to their insurance companies to incorporate into their policy as contractual liability. None of them cancelled the contract either. Be assured that when the sad event occurs, they will be the first to complain.

Aircraft insurance is not like the one on your car. It has lots of provisions that can trap an aircraft owner into no coverage. This one is easy. No contract to save a few cents on a fuel purchase is worth the loss of coverage.

Arthur Alan Wolk

December 3, 2018

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Finally waking up after its year and half long nap, the FAA decided to follow the lead of the manufacturer and order an immediate inspection of certain CFM-56 engines that power Boeing 737 aircraft.

The Emergency Airworthiness Directive which should have been issued days after the uncontained failure of the fan of another Southwest Airlines B-737 over the Gulf of Mexico in 2016, requires inspections of certain engines which have accumulated 30,000 cycles, off and on equal one cycle, and repeated inspections every 3000 cycles.

Engines which have accumulated 20,000 cycles must be inspected by August.

That tells me that the manufacturer already had the data to support the Emergency A.D. and that the extended time period requested by the airlines to comply with the long proposed A.D. here in the U.S. was even more unwarranted and outrageous.

Nothing has been said about reviewing the engineering and testing data on the engine nacelles which have proved themselves incapable of containing such engine failures, a very dangerous design flaw.

This accident and the break neck speed that it took the regulatory authorities to get moving once again demonstrates that from an engineering standpoint no one has to die or be injured before an airplane is fixed or a safety problem is identified, but the business model of the airlines and the attitude of Government makes it necessary that there be deaths or injuries before they are willing to do anything in a timely manner.

There needs to be a change of culture in this industry because one death is too many when it could have been easily prevented.

Arthur Alan Wolk

April 21st, 2018

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The death of a beautiful wife and mother did not have to happen. When she boarded Southwest Flight 1380 in New York she could not have known that both the airline she trusted, the FAA, part of the Government that is thought of as the watchdog for flight safety, and the NTSB the independent government agency that’s supposed to investigate accidents and make Safety Recommendations had ignored explicit warnings that a disaster was in the making.

In 2016, a Southwest Boeing 737 suffered a similar fan blade separation while over the Gulf of Mexico. It landed safely in New Orleans. The fan blade was found to have suffered a fatigue failure and while exiting the engine nacelle it too destroyed much of the front of that device that is supposed to contain such disintegrations. It didn’t.

The French manufacturer of the CFM-56 engine that powers all Boeing 737NG aircraft issued a Service Bulletin requiring airlines to perform ultrasonic inspection of the fan blades based upon time in service and the European Authorities felt the chances for loss of life was serious enough to issue an Airworthiness Directive that required all EU based airlines to perform the Service Bulletin. Our Federal Aviation Administration, always asleep, and always too little too late, is still fooling with a similar Airworthiness Directive for U.S. based airlines but hasn’t yet ordered the inspections. The manufacturer of the aircraft, The Boeing Company, did nothing to determine why uncontained engine failures were not “contained” by the very device that’s supposed to contain them.

While airlines are required to perform Service Bulletins, it is clear that Southwest, the airline that suffered the in-flight emergency in 2016, didn’t feel it was urgent enough to accelerate inspections on its own aircraft even after suffering the near tragic event that just as easily could have cost the life of its passengers and crew.

More than a year and a half later, with nothing done in the face of the events that warned everyone, the airline, the FAA, the manufacturer of the airplane, that a time bomb, the fan blades could explode, be uncontained, and bring down an airplane, Southwest 1380 killed a passenger.

Every airplane telegraphs its intention to fail long before it happens. An accident is no surprise, it’s always a consequence of the people in charge who fail to act quickly enough.

The death of this lovely woman is beyond a disgrace, it is unwarranted, it is the result of a total absence of care, a gross abuse of a system that was supposed to protect the flying public.

Touting that there had not been a fatality since 2009 in U.S. airline operations, the FAA and NTSB were lauding their own skill and job performance while ignoring the hard facts. They failed in their duties and without some coercion from Government airlines do as little as possible.

The Service Bulletin gave the airlines too much time. The Airworthiness Directive gave the airlines too much time. The FAA is incompetent and the NTSB should have issued a Safety Recommendation after the 2016 incident and didn’t.

To learn more, see my TV interviews about the incident.

Arthur Alan Wolk

April 19th 2018

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Two beautiful families on vacation in Costa Rica were killed along with their guide and flight crew when the Cessna 208B Grand Caravan crashed on takeoff on December 31, 2017 in Nandayure, Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica.  The NTSB, en route from the United States along with representatives of Cessna, the airplane’s manufacturer and Pratt and Whitney Canada, the engine manufacturer, mentioned high winds as perhaps playing a role.  That disturbing statement shows how the NTSB will immediately seize on nothing to set up its conclusion that the pilots were to blame for this accident.

This is the dilemma of aircraft accident investigation when the NTSB is “assisted” by only the companies most likely to face legal liability for this tragedy.  Any trained accident investigator who looks at the immediate aftermath of the crash can see the smoke rising straight up. That belies any assertion of high winds. Moreover, a Cessna Grand Caravan will not crash just because of non-hurricane force winds; which, in fact, will make it climb better not worse.

This appears to be a tragic case of engine failure which while not common, is not uncommon either. The causes of that failure vary, but generally in the P&W PT-6 engine it is likely to be a pneumatic fuel control malfunction, provided there is no catastrophic failure of internal engine components.  The actual investigation which will be much more thorough will be done by the lawyers and their experts who represent the occupants of the aircraft. Critical will be the preservation of the wreckage before it is manhandled into uselessness by the “official” investigators.

This awful tragedy, that has deprived the world of young vivacious people who have contributed so much to our society already, must be carefully investigated and the cause learned because a single engine aircraft that carries so many people must not be allowed to have another engine failure that takes so many lives.

The Wolk Law Firm grieves with these families and hopes that out this hopelessness some good can come.

Arthur Alan Wolk

1/2/18

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Technology is changing rapidly in aviation.

  • The old 6 pack design has given way to the glass cockpit.
  • Computer screens have replaced round dials.
  • Electric airplane instruments have replaced unreliable gyroscopic instruments.
  • GPS navigation is the norm while old style VOR’s and ILS approaches are being phased out.

To effectively litigate airplane crashes it is vital that your lawyers are well versed on advanced cockpits and the airplanes they are installed in.
The future causes of airplane accidents are not just because of stubborn reliance on antiquated engine technology but failures of the glass technology that often disappear after the accident. Knowledge of this technology is vital to solving the puzzle of why airplanes crash.

The Wolk Law Firm has two Airline Transport rated pilots, a former Naval Aviator who is also a flight instructor, another multi and single engine rated pilot and they are supported by two of the most sophisticated aviation lawyers in the country.
We are even rated with the unusual Airplane Transport Pilot certificate for seaplanes both multi-engine and single engine and type ratings in jet fighters and this Eclipse EA 50 twin jet which flies for the firm. We are current in the Air Traffic Control System and we know the regulations, the procedures and the art of flying airplanes.

Our experience which totals thousands of hours as pilot in command is vital to quickly and effectively investigate and determine the causes of even the most baffling airplane accidents. There is a reason the Wolk Law Firm is regularly consulted as on air experts after an airplane crash, it’s because we consistently provide reliable, well founded views on why airplane accidents happen. We are proud of the work we have done over nearly 50 years. We have raised a thousand children and been responsible for safety improvements in both general aviation and commercial aircraft.

That’s how The Wolk Law Firm has earned its reputation as the standard against which other plaintiffs’ aviation law firms are judged.
We hope that one day airplane crashes will be a thing of the past but until they are, we will be here to help.

 

Arthur Alan Wolk

December 23rd, 2016

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Few outside the air crash litigation world know how the party system at the NTSB works. When an airplane crash happens, it isn’t just the NTSB investigator-in-charge who goes to the scene to investigate. Under NTSB rules, manufacturers’ accident investigators are invited as parties to the investigation.

Thanks to former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, a Rand Report indicted this procedure as allowing aircraft manufacturers who had litigation in mind to be the fox guarding the henhouse by influencing the accident investigation away from failures in their components. This is the reason that pilot error is virtually always the cause assigned by the NTSB for an accident.

Well, in spite of good public money having been spent on the Rand study and the lessons that were supposed to be learned from it, the NTSB has taken the justly criticized party system a step further. The NTSB now permits the manufacturers of aircraft, whose accidents it investigates, to pass on promotions of NTSB air safety investigators to senior air safety investigator status. That’s right, in order to get a promotion at the NTSB, to advance in one’s career and receive more money and stature, the promotion hinges on approval from the people investigated. Put another way, if an investigator regularly finds a defect caused an aircraft accident instead of pilot error, he has essentially no chance of promotion.

This has caused a furor among air safety investigators at the NTSB, some of whom who refuse to play ball with the manufacturers’ attempts to place the blame for every accident on the dead pilot. Unfortunately, what these guys don’t know is that the system is fixed against them. Compared to the aircraft manufacturers the air safety investigators are powerless.

Not to worry! Nobody in the air crash litigation profession relies on the NTSB reports. We do our own investigation, which is more thorough and we know more about these airplanes and why they crash than anyone at the NTSB, so good does triumph over evil most of the time.

What is sad, however, is that the good guys who want to do the “independent” air crash investigation work that the “Independent Safety Board Act” was designed by Congress to accomplish are frustrated that their zeal to be independent is frustrated by a good ole boy network of Government and industry that stacks the deck against them.

So much for the promised return to integrity in Government!

– Arthur Alan Wolk

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Aircraft wings and tails have forever been the collectors of enough ice to make them quit working like wings and tails. All it really takes is visible moisture, a cloud for example, and temperatures that approach freezing. The movement of the metal surfaces through the air is often enough to lower the temperature below freezing so even outside air temperatures above freezing will allow enough ice to form to give plenty of aerodynamic trouble.

Aircraft manufacturers have historically used de-ice devices to deal with ice, at least enough of it to satisfy the FAA’s paltry requirements to certify an aircraft for flight into “known icing conditions”. De-ice devices concede that the manufacturer will allow the aircraft to accumulate ice before activation is supposed to shed the ice, hence the term de-ice.

De-icing devices are typically rubber boots that inflate to break the ice off. The inflation pressures are supplied by an engine driven vacuum pump, bleed air taken from the compressor section of turbine engines or separate pumps electrically driven. Engine driven vacuum pumps have proven to be prone to failure just when they are needed most because of heat, sudden demands that fail their internal carbon blades, general deterioration or contamination just to name a few of the many reasons for un-annunciated sudden failure. Bleed air drawn from the compressors of little turbine engines is often not enough to completely inflate the boots, the air can often becomes contaminated with moisture and causes ice to form in the inflation tubes, and bleed air drawn from the compressor means less air for the engine to develop the necessary power to climb out of icing conditions or even to provide cabin heat.

Electrically driven air pumps is clearly the better idea because the pumps are single purpose and can supply full inflation pressures regardless of aircraft altitude, cabin heat requirements or moisture.

All of these systems share the same problem. They are designed to remove ice allowed to accumulate rather than preventing its accumulation. It is the accumulation of ice that has proven to be the undoing of many pilots and their aircraft because the manufacturers have hidden a very important fact. They don’t work effectively in the icing conditions that these airplanes regularly fly in and that most pilots think are safe to fly in. None of the federal agencies have taken strong action but there has been talk for decades about the problem. Nonetheless people continue to die each icing season.

Most deicing boots cover less of the airfoil than is required to remove dangerous accumulations of ice. Most deicing boots are impacted by the lack of adequate inflation pressure especially at altitude or with cabin heat on, and many deicing boots will accumulate moisture that will affect the amount of inflation. Couple this with some very unforgiving airfoils that have sharp stall characteristics and the use of deicing boots for known icing certification can be disastrous.

Federal authorities have been uniform in blaming pilots for icing accidents. Clearly these blame merchants are either not pilots, or have never flown in the clouds in the winter. Icing is unpredictable and even when forecast occurs only forty percent of the time. To blame a pilot for a crash because he didn’t predict weather even the National Weather Service can’t get right seems unfair since for the most part pilots are unaware of the limitations of their deicing equipment as manufacturers have not been honest about the limitations.

Other Than Trace To Light Icing, Deicing Equipment In Most General Aviation Airplanes Doesn’t Work.

Neither the testing nor the equipment was ever designed to permit continuous flight in moderate icing conditions. The regulations require it but the manufacturers do not test for it and the aircraft will not handle it. Not a believer, look at the accident reports. They are replete with pilots who cannot believe their multimillion dollar aircraft can’t handle continuous moderate icing, a question they no doubt carry to their deaths.

Even the manufacturers can’t agree with either each other or the Government about when to de-ice. Some say wait until three quarters to one inch of rime ice accumulates before activating the boots. Others say, no, activate boots at the first sign of ice. Some say wait for less clear ice to accumulate before activation and others say activate the boots when such ice is anticipated. Some say don’t activate the boots on approach because it will slow the aircraft by ten knots or so and other say use the boots continuously. Some say ice bridging occurs if you use the boots too soon and too frequently and others say that’s an old pilot’s tale, dead old pilot no doubt.

Some NACA five digit airfoils, widely used in general aviation and some smaller turboprop commuter aircraft grow ice aft of the boots just because of their angle of attack in flight. Some will accumulate ice aft of the boots at the highest point of lift at twelve percent cord and others will react violently especially when the ice accumulates on the horizontal tail. Some airplanes will suffer an ice-induced tail stall for which recovery virtually no pilots have been trained. It is opposite normal stall recovery and may not be recoverable at all.

The manufacturers of big airplanes, transport category airplanes, have long recognized that the use of deicing boots is not a safe solution for the demands of air carriers who may have to fly in ice for a long time. Years ago they abandoned de-icing boots in favor of anti-ice systems. As one famous aeronautical engineer from a well known manufacturer has said: “You could not expect de-icing boots to effectively remove ice from an aircraft that had to fly from Paris to New York much of it in icing conditions so we heated the leading edges of the surfaces instead so ice wouldn’t accumulate.”

Anti-ice as it is called is the only safe way to keep modern aircraft safe in icing conditions. Heating the leading edges of the aerodynamic surfaces is the best way. In turbine aircraft, bleed air from the compressor of the engine is routed though the leading edges. It heats stainless steel strips and they will not allow the accumulation of ice. This requires lots of bleed air and that robs the engines of power and increases fuel consumption. It requires much more power than is necessary for the flight itself and typically is found in larger more powerful aircraft although it is also used in regional jets and many executive jet aircraft but sadly not all. Requiring more power means more expense to buy, greater expense to operate but greater safety is the prize. Other anti-icing options include, weeping wings which bleed glycol or other anti-icing fluids through tiny holes in a mesh leading edge, and electrically heated leading edge devices. The electrically heated leading edge devices will become more and more prolific once low weight high power electrical generators are introduced currently being developed for the newest transport category airliners.

Fortunately for jet operators, much of their flying time is above the weather including icing conditions but as many of the very light jets compete for scarce airspace and air traffic delays due to bad weather become more common, these low powered mostly de-icing equipped jets will suffer from accidents due to the limitations of this equipment. The propeller driven piston powered airplanes are simply doomed to suffer accidents in icing conditions because “certified for flight into known icing conditions” is a cruel hoax for which they are clearly ill-equipped. Small turbine propeller driven aircraft are equally hexed because their tiny engines just don’t have sufficient bleed air to do the job to inflate the boots under the most demanding of flight conditions.

The answer is straightforward. First, the Federal authorities must get their acts together and make a sensible realistic definition of “known icing conditions”. Second, the Federal authorities must ensure that manufacturers comply not only with the letter of the law but also the spirit of the law. If a manufacturer anticipates as it should that a “known icing” certified aircraft will be flown in lots of different icing conditions then it must ensure the aircraft will do it safely. Today that is not so. Third, the Federal authorities must mandate that all aircraft with a “known icing” certification be equipped with anti-icing equipment sufficient to prevent the accumulation of ice and that all power plants have sufficient reserve power to effectively operate this equipment. Fourth, the Federal authorities must carefully review prior known icing certifications and monitor new ones to ensure not that the aircraft meets the letter of the law but that it will be safe to fly in all reasonably anticipatable icing conditions. Under no circumstances should Federal authorities be allowing manufacturers to rewrite their flight manuals after certification to accommodate the reality of accidents in airplanes that never met the requirements in the first place.

Safe flight in icing conditions can’t be the luck of the draw, it must be totally predictable, repeatable and without chance. The only thing manufacturers have control over is to design and build in the capability of an aircraft to safely fly in icing conditions. A higher authority has control over the existence of and the severity of icing conditions that are likely to be experienced. Given man’s control over the former and his lack of control over the latter it is incumbent upon him, and well within the technology, to ensure that emergence safely from the latter is guaranteed.

– Arthur Alan Wolk

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In a bizarre twist the NTSB, never at a loss for confusing the causes of accidents with how much it can do for aircraft manufacturers, has suggested that pilot training needs improvement to handle double engine failures at altitude.

First, double engine failures on multi-engine airplanes are illegal if a common cause can result in failure of more than one engine. In short, the airplane should never have been certified as airworthy if this could happen.

It turns out that some jet engines at high altitude, high power settings and cold temperatures can lock up and refuse to restart. This is not only a violation of the certification regulations for the engines, but also of the airplane if both of them in a two engine airplane can do the same thing at the same time.

Instead of coming down like it should have on the manufacturers of the engines and airplanes, the NTSB has instead recommended that a multi-disciplinary panel of experts be convened to discuss improving pilot training. That training already exists! It’s called glider training because when two engines quit in a two engine airplane, the pilots are flying a glider!

What airplanes and engines are the NTSB referring to? The regional jets that increasingly carry more passengers to their destinations than the “real airplanes” that we used to fly in.

This NTSB recommendation, which ignores the seriousness of this life threatening problem and does not address its cause, is irresponsible.

My recommendation is that when both engines quit and you can’t restart, the crew should thank the NTSB and the FAA for failing to exercise their legal obligations to protect those who fly in aircraft.

– Arthur Alan Wolk

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Uncompleted modification leaves lots of questions and too few answers

At 35,000 feet, the Airbus A330, the Air France 447 plane that crashed, is only about 25 knots between cruise speed and aerodynamic stall. Thus, if wind shear and turbulence are sufficiently violent, the aircraft can stall and the air data computers will take the autopilot offline because the equipment senses an anomaly. The airplane will be thrown around like a feather and composite structures will fail because they have never been tested to ultimate load. That stall can also result in the aircraft becoming unrecoverable while it breaks up on its way to lower altitudes.

With all the computing power in an A330, sources outside of the aircraft should be used to supplement radar so that the computer can determine when it’s time to turn back.

It’s also time for certifying authorities to rethink how to test composite aircraft structures. It is no surprise that that the big thing found floating in the Atlantic Ocean was the composite vertical stabilizer separated from the rest of the airplane. Speculation is that the Pitot Tubes, which were unmodified as recommended for better ice resistance, permitted erroneous speed readings. I believe this is possible but unlikely. However, if the risk was so high, the modification should have been required before further flight was permissible.

Why isn’t anyone talking about the tail fuel tank modification that was designed to prevent explosions caused by lightning? Did the airline comply with that directive? There are a lot of questions…too few answers.

– Arthur Alan Wolk

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Gus Fossum was a simple guy on a mission. Raised on a farm in Minnesota, he never attended high school – while still a teenager in 1924 he went to the city to study automobile engines. He wanted to become an Army pilot, but obeyed his father and instead moved to Los Angeles in 1927. He studied aircraft mechanics in 1929-30 while owning and operating an auto garage (1928-1942). He owned several planes and flew often, including over the 1932 Olympic Games. In 1943 he joined the Navy and spent the war in Hawaii preparing planes for battle. After WWII he spent the next 25 years working for aircraft companies, including Northrop and General Electric, as an inspector. Over the years he constantly was thinking of ways to improve on the things he knew. He wanted to forever end the dreaded killer of so many in aviation – carburetor ice.

Carburetor ice has been a problem since airplanes were first invented, and even today is the most frequent cause of unexplained engine failure. It has been studied for generations, and some innovative fixes by some brilliant engineers have been proposed, but none implemented by General Aviation manufacturers. Teflon coating of the throttle plate and venturi was proposed by the Canadians after their tests showed virtually ice free operation. The Teflon simply won’t allow ice to stick. The cost to implement this was $1.50 per carburetor. It never happened. Others have proposed fuel additives to prevent ice formation, and still others have recommended that all carburetors be equipped with ice detectors so a pilot won’t have to guess if his loss of power is due to carburetor ice or some other cause.

But only one invention, Gus Fossum’s invention, puts an end forever to carburetor ice and all the injuries and deaths that have come from it. Gus designed, built, and installed in his airplane a prototype small updraft carburetor, the kind that Marvel Schebler and now Precision have built since the 1940s. He carefully machined oil channels in the casting, throttle plate and throttle plate shaft so hot engine oil would constantly warm the carburetor and prevent the formation of any ice. At his own great expense of time and money, he obtained patents for the device in 1975 (3,916,859) and in 1979 (4,169,442). Manufacturing costs would have risen slightly, but in production this remarkable innovation would have resulted in a negligible increase in cost. Gus tested his amazing invention, and then tried desperately to sell the concept to aircraft and engine manufacturers. While none denied his invention was not the cure that Gus proudly proclaimed it to be, not one manufacturer would entertain the idea of using it. Gus Fossum’s invention is still not being manufactured for any aircraft – and carburetor ice deaths and injuries continue unabated.

Gus Fossum died in 1999 before his dream of improving aviation safety by eliminating carburetor ice from the litany of causes of aircraft accidents was realized, but he should not be forgotten. It takes a courageous man to put his reputation and skill on the line, face off multi-billion dollar aircraft and engine manufacturers and show them the way to save lives and them from their own product liability exposure. They didn’t listen, but we should. The Gus Fossums of this world make it a better place. His widow Helen, now 94, and family savor the memory of the simple man who just wanted to help keep everyone safe in the aviation field he loved so much.

Rest in peace, Gus.

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