On January 4, 2009, Tommy Ballenger, the pilot of a Sikorsky helicopter, and seven others, were killed in a crash in that occurred in Louisiana. They were flying in a Sikorsky S76C++ helicopter owned by PHI, Inc., when the aircraft was struck by a red tailed hawk weighing only 2 ½ pounds. This is referred to as a bird strike, a common occurrence, and one that should not have caused this helicopter to crash. Mr. Ballenger and seven others died in the crash with one passenger surviving. The bird impact to the aircraft caused the Sikorsky helicopter’s throttle control levers to go from fly to the near idle position, a condition that prevented continued flight. The bird strike also caused the after-market windscreen manufactured by Aeronautical Accessories, Inc. to fail, thus disrupting the cabin environment. The pilot and co-pilot were totally confused and were unable to keep the helicopter flying. They had less than four seconds to recognize their most severe problems, take corrective action, and keep the helicopter flying. That was impossible according to experts and it was conceded that there was no pilot error that contributed to the crash.
It took a long and hard-fought battle to finally obtain justice for Tommy Ballenger’s family. The two Defendants, Sikorsky and AAI, hired a number of law firms and tried very hard to avoid liability. There were hundreds of thousands of pages of manufacturing documents produced, as well as dozens of lengthy depositions taken across the country over a period of numerous weeks. These depositions covered various safety issues in the case and involved over a dozen experts. Collectively, the Plaintiffs’ expert expenses approached one million dollars in all eight cases. It was abundantly clear from the outset that the Defendants intended on waging a war of attrition. Seven of the cases were already settled, and the Ballenger case was set for a multi-week trial before U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson to start on December 5th.
Ultimately, we were able to show that both the Sikorsky helicopter and the AAI windscreen were each defectively designed. The throttle on the helicopter was subject to “uncommanded movement,” caused by a bird strike-induced shock load. Two previous events had occurred where similar Sikorsky helicopters had experienced a reduction of engine power as a result of a bird strike. Sikorsky also knew from other sources that it had a serious safety problem. But Sikorsky failed to do anything to correct the known problem. Most shocking is that we were able to show that the Sikorsky S76 C++ is believed to be the only helicopter in the world that has experienced this problem because of its faulty design. All other helicopters with a similar throttle placement are believed to have a locking mechanism in place to prevent this type occurrence. Despite this hazardous and dangerous design, Sikorsky did not include an audible low rotor warning device that would have alerted the pilots to this hazard. This type audible warning is used by other manufacturers.
AAI made a cast acrylic windscreen for the helicopter that failed in flight as a result of the bird impact. The failure of the windscreen resulted in hurricane-force winds coming into the cockpit that in turn caused a total loss of the cabin environment, disorienting the pilots and preventing a safe landing. It has been known in the helicopter industry since the 1970s that cast acrylic is a poor choice for helicopter frontal windscreens due to the danger they pose to pilots in flight.
Greg Allen, Chris Glover and I worked on this case along with Jimmy Calton, Sr., a lawyer from Eufaula, Ala. We were especially well pleased with the result in this case because of the difference it will make, not only for our clients, but also for aviation safety. Some product liability lawyers work their entire careers and are never able to see a real difference made in the safety of products as a direct result of their work.
In this case, I’m convinced that because the families of these eight victims stood up to Sikorsky and AAI, the Sikorsky S76C++ now has a safer throttle that locks in position, low rotor warnings made available to pilots, and with warnings sent to operators encouraging them to no longer fly the helicopter with this cast acrylic windscreen. Our clients, Ann Ballenger, the widow, and Tom Ballenger’s daughter Mary Anna, were well-pleased with what we consider to be an excellent settlement for them.
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