First they came for the ob-gyns and I did not complain because I wasn’t an ob-gyn (see John Edwards channeling the voices of dead babies).
Now the trial lawyers have come for my new helicopter (IFR trainer; had been scheduled for February 15).
Here’s how it happened. Once there was a little company called Precision Airmotive making aircraft parts. One product line was carburetors and they were the only company left in the U.S. making aircraft engine carbs, including the carb that goes in a Robinson Raven I helicopter.
A couple of guys in Florida went out for a night training flight in 1999 in a Cessna 150, produced between 1958 and 1977, which is probably the very cheapest training airplane available (this one had 12,878 hours total time; the NTSB did not report the number of hours since the engine was overhauled). Flight schools in Florida are renowned for skimping on maintenance. An exhaust valve stuck open, taking the rest of the engine with it. They crashed on a road and were injured. A trial lawyer managed to convince a jury that the design of the carburetor was defective, leading to overly rich fuel/air mixture, and causing valves to stick. Precision argued that this carburetor design dated from the 1930s and was installed in tens of thousands of airplanes, many of which were flying at flight schools all day every day. The jury sided with the badly injured pilots and awarded $38 million against Precision, a 43-employee company (story).
Precision’s next liability insurance quote exceeded their total annual revenue from selling carburetors. They decided to stop making carburetors and sold the business to another company. The new company is setting up a production line in another state and, in the meantime, there are no carbs to be had. Robinson is sitting on helicopters that are 99 percent complete but that cannot be delivered to customers. That is the kind of thing that could bankrupt a lot of companies.
As a layperson, I can’t understand how Precision had any liability at all. The fuel/air mixture is controlled by the pilot. The richness of the “full rich” setting is controlled by the manufacturer of the airplane and the engine. In any case, the plane flew safely for 12,878 hours with the allegedly defective carb design, as did 24,000 other Cessna 150s. In this case, I believe that Cessna could not be held liable because Congress gave airplane manufacturer’s an 18-year limit on lawsuits. Presumably the carburetor and/or engine were newer than 18 years or had been overhauled within the preceding 18 years. The NTSB did not investigate this crash very intensively. “Ancient little Cessna maintained by a discount flight school in Florida loses its decades-old engine” is not an uncommon or surprising story. There is a brief factual report and a probable cause report. The NTSB does not mention the carburetor design as a potential source of any problem.
King Bush II visited Robinson Helicopter on January 30 (photos) to congratulate them on being such successful exporters and celebrating American engineering ingenuity. Robinson won’t be exporting any Raven Is for a while. Maybe Bush should visit some personal injury lawyers and congratulate them on being more ingenious than our engineers…
[For some background on the 1980s shutdown of the small airplane industry, blamed partly on litigation costs, check out this story on the General Aviation Revitalization Act.]
[For some technical background on the correlation between rich fuel/air mixture and valve stickage, check this Lycoming service letter from 1988 and this Continental service bulletin from 1977. The engine in that old Cessna 150 was probably designed for 80/87 fuel, which has been discontinued in favor of a higher lead content fuel, 100LL. Most of these engines would actually run better on unleaded car gasoline, but you can’t buy that at most airports. And of course it is a shame that the industry and FAA have not been able to come up with modern piston engine control systems that would keep the mixture at an optimum level at all times (as does the system in the cheapest new Kia or Hyundai automobile). But I’m not sure it is fair to fault the carburetor company for continuing to sell its 1930s design if the customers can’t find anything better…]