As most of our readers will already know, there is a legal concept that was first applied in the context of automobile collisions referred to as “crashworthiness.” The doctrine assumed that cars are going to be involved in crashes and, therefore, they must be designed to reasonably protect occupants in foreseeable collisions. That’s the law and it just makes good sense.
The same concept extends and applies to airplanes and helicopters. While airplanes and helicopters crash far less often, they do face foreseeable impacts and must be able to reasonably protect occupants from those impacts. Perhaps the most common impact an airplane or helicopter faces is that of bird impacts. This has been an issue since the beginning of manned flight, but there are certain things that can be done to protect aircraft from those bird impacts.
Our firm is involved in a case involving a collision between single 3.5 pound red tail hawk and a Sikorsky S76 C++ carrying nine occupants. The bird impact caused a complete engine failure of the aircraft. Shortly after the impact, eight of the nine persons on board lost their lives. I’m sure some of you will ask, where did this bird hit the aircraft? I suspect some of you are probably thinking it got clogged in the engines. Chris Glover, one of the lawyers handling this case for our firm, says he did too when he first heard of the crash. But, no, this bird simply hit the canopy and windshield. It was an impact that should have done nothing to the flight operations of this helicopter.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigation into this crash concluded that the windscreen was not airworthy in the sense that it could not withstand the impact in this very foreseeable collision with the bird. The impact shattered the windscreen causing hurricane force wind and noise inside the cockpit. Moreover, the NTSB found that Sikorsky in design placed the engine controls of the S76 C++ only a few inches behind this windscreen and that they were susceptible to movement due to impacts. The impact forced the flight controls of the helicopter into the idle engine position effectively turning the helicopter off mid-flight. It all happened so fast that the pilots and passengers had no chance of survival.
Our investigation revealed that AAI, the company that made the windscreen, did no testing or analysis to determine how it would hold up from a bird impact. We also found that Sikorsky had previous problems with this engine throttle coming loose in bird impacts and that a design change made the engine controls less resistant to inadvertent movement. Simple design changes would have made these aircraft safe for these foreseeable impacts. Aircraft of this sort must be designed to be airworthy. If you have a question about aviation safety, please contact Chris Glover or Mike Andrews, two of the lawyers in our firm who handle aircraft cases, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Chris.Glover@beasleyallen.com, or Mike Andrews, at Mike.Andrews@beasleyallen.com.
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