Does liability set up a no-fly zone?
A reader takes issue with our safety columnist’s views on whom to blame for the demise of the general aviation industry.

A dogfight over light aircraft
I generally read Mr. Berke’s safety column and find it informative. I am an aeronautical and mechanical engineer and have been looking into doing some forensic-engineering work, so I’m attending meetings of the National Academy of Forensic Engineers.

However, I was disappointed that Mr. Berke didn’t address one of the points made by Mr. Brian Winter in his letter to the magazine (“Engineers and liability,” Letters, March 18), namely, the destruction of the American light-aircraft industry by lawsuits.

Safety is important, but so is the recognition that lawsuits are sometimes settled unfairly due to lack of understanding by juries and a plaintiff’s attorney’s overly aggressive sense of justice.

I was professionally involved as a designer and chief engineer in four light-aircraft companies, so I have some relevant knowledge and experience in the area.

For approximately 50 years — from 1925 through 1975 — the cost of a starter small airplane, was approximately the cost of a Cadillac or Lincoln car. And during that time, the U.S. dominated the manufacture and use of light aircraft. The country built about 25,000 aircraft per year from 1965-75. And liability insurance for the manufacturer was a small percentage of the cost of each unit.

But between 1975, when strict liability reform began, and 1985, the cost of that same airplane soared to 10 to 20 times the cost of a Cadillac or Lincoln while the cost of liability insurance became nearly 50% or more of the selling price. In the same period, the total output of the industry went from approximately 25,000 units per year to under 1,000.

Surely 50 years of fine products didn’t become hazardous overnight. As Mr. Winter inferred, many of those same aircraft, now 35 to 60 or more years old, are still safely flying.

The same thing has happened to the medical profession. I know excellent doctors who are ready to just quit rather than fight the lawyers.

I believe in safety and safe products, but something has to be done. The only real production of wealth is manufacturing, making something of more value from something of lesser value. Transferring large amounts of money to the pockets of lawyers adds nothing to the well-being of the country as a whole.

As I get into forensic engineering, my skills will be used to defend manufacturers where, in my opinion, they are unfairly targeted.

Roland Friestad

It is my general opinion that the light-airplane industry brought their problems onto themselves by not putting out good, safe products, and that the FAA let them do that.

Let me give you an example of my experience. I am a licensed pilot with an instrument rating, even though my medical is not up to date.

Many years ago I flew my wife and another couple to another city and back. The aircraft was a Cessna 172. Part way into the first leg of the flight, my seat lurched forward and I was laying against the yoke (steering wheel for those of you who are not familiar with aircraft). I was at a safe altitude so everything was all right, even though I was startled. We landed and I checked out my seat but couldn’t find a problem.

On the flight home, it happened again. Again, I was at a safe altitude, but I was getting concerned. When I arrived at my home airfield, on final approach and about 100 feet off the ground, it happened a third time. Because I had just gone through this twice before, I was able to properly land the aircraft and taxi to the hangar. I asked my friend who has been sitting behind me what was going on. She told me her leg was cramping on her and she was stretching her leg out each time my seat was released.

I checked out my seat from the back seat and found I could reach under the front seat and release its locking mechanism.

When I got home, I wrote a letter to Cessna and the FAA describing the events, and recommended a steel plate be required to cover that opening so no one could inadvertently release the seat-locking mechanism. I received letters from both Cessna and the FAA telling me the problem that I had identified was not actually a problem at all.

A few years later, the FAA issued a directive that the open space that let a back-seat passenger release the front seat locking mechanism be blocked with a steel plate.

I wonder how many people were killed by this design flaw and the FAA called it pilot error. This was only one problem I ran into, but there were others that Cessna and their suppliers should have found and not relied on the public to be their test laboratory.

Now it appears the light-airplane manufacturers have their act together with one possible exception. I do not see any reason for general-aviation aircraft to be priced at $250,000 to $500,000 other than to give the companies huge profits on the sale of each aircraft.

You make one very good point: Over a 50-year span, general-aviation aircraft did not suddenly become hazardous. They were hazardous all along. — Lanny Berke

Mr. Berke:
Your experience, while extremely serious and certainly deserving of immediate correction by the manufacturer, doesn’t seem to me to warrant an across-the-board statement that light aircraft were “hazardous all along.” On the other hand, flying does have inherent hazards, but to make a blanket condemnation of the industry because of your single case seems pretty short-sighted.

I do know of cases of design or manufacturing flaws that have resulted in injury and fatalities and they are tragic and highly regrettable. These are far outnumbered by deaths and injuries caused by flying under the influence of alcohol or drugs, “shade-tree” maintenance, and just plain lack of judgement on the part of pilots. Statistics bear this out.

Any such design flaws I discovered while in charge of aircraft manufacturing were corrected as soon as possible. I was not always popular with the front-office management and “bean counters” but always had the full cooperation of the FAA in any such matters.

I, too, am a licensed pilot and owned a Cessna 172 for many years. I never ran into the situation you describe, or any others that I could attribute to design deficiencies. (And Cessna was not one of the companies for which I worked).

The huge profits to which you refer are only in your mind. Any light aircraft company that makes even a 5% profit considers itself very fortunate.

It is obvious to me that we must agree to disagree.

Roland Friestad