Air Crash Deaths the FAA Could Prevent
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Air Crash Deaths the FAA Could Prevent

Monday, December 07, 2009By Richard Alexander

As I wrote more than 12 years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) waits to enact new regulations until after the crash, instead of crafting a comprehensive set of rules addressing recognized hazards – rules that are clear, simple, and focused entirely on safety.  As a pilot and a personal injury lawyer, I know the significance of adhering to safety checklists and creating systems that are easy to follow – all the time. The record is clear that the FAA drags its feet until after a major crash to address known and recognized hazards.

This agency’s backward approach to its job has led to many wrongful deaths and personal injuries, and many individuals and consumer groups have sued the FAA after crashes in attempts to prevent future air disasters.

In a Florida case, the FAA paid a widow $650,000 because of her husband’s death in a mid-air collision between two small planes. She’d rather have her husband than the money, but her lawsuit against the FAA hasn’t been enough to pressure the agency into doing everything it can to make the skies as safe as they can possibly be.

Because of the FAA’s negligence, we’ve seen a steady number of tragedies like the one that happened in New York on August 8 when a small private plane clipped a sightseeing helicopter from behind and sent 9 people to their deaths in the Hudson River.

This latest crash brought back memories of baseball player Corey Lidle, who died when he flew his small plane into an apartment building in Manhattan in 2006. Both of these deadly incidents have made observers wonder why the FAA endangers people in the air and on the ground by allowing planes and helicopters to fly over New York with nil regulation.

The basic rule for pilots flying below 1100 feet above New York is “see and avoid”. As the term indicates, it means that pilots are supposed to look for other planes and then to take a flight path that prevents a collision. It’s an FAA regulation that threatens everyone, and if it doesn’t change, more collisions like this one are certain to happen.

“See and avoid” has obvious problems. One is that pilots are not paying full attention to safety. Another is that pilots, like drivers, have blind spots. In the most recent crash, the helicopter had to have been in the blind spot of the small Piper, with a low wing preventing a full downward view. The plane was apparently making a climbing right turn when it crashed into the helicopter and the view to the left and below the plane was blocked.

One pilot who fully understands the dangers inherent in flying around New York said that the FAA’s decision to leave the air space above the city essentially unregulated made the collision “inevitable”. Ben Lane desperately radioed a warning as the private plane bore down on the helicopter piloted by his friend, Jeremy Clarke, but soon both aircraft were in the Hudson River, and 5 Italian visitors and 4 Americans were dead.  If this airspace had been strictly controlled, permission for specific routes and altitudes would have been dictated by air traffic controllers.

One reason why this latest air disaster happened is that, like the FDA and many other government agencies, the FAA has made a practice of putting the interests of the industry ahead of safety.  It is only after the crash that the FAA starts making rules.  Read the article I wrote 12 years ago that is cited above.  This is a very, very old story.

Frequently, a government whistleblower inside an agency such as the FAA finds himself turned into the bad guy for trying to protect the public. When a plane crash killed 50 people in Buffalo, New York in February, an FAA inspector came forward and reported that he had warned his supervisors of potential dangers with the new aircraft more than a year before the crash. The deadly reaction of this government whistleblower’s bosses was to tell him to keep his mouth shut and then to demote him.  If they worked for me, those bosses would be terminated for cause and I would recommend prosecution.

If FAA bosses had listened to that inspector, 50 people might still be alive today. The February crash of a Colgan Air commuter plane in Buffalo occurred when inexperienced pilots made fatal errors on approach, and it highlighted the flaws in the training and hiring of pilots, and in the overall management of America’s skies by the FAA.

The recent crash in New York City involved an amateur pilot, a private plane, and a crowded air corridor. The mid-air collision happened on a perfect summer day when the Hudson River was full of pleasure boats, and crashing aircraft fortunately did not hit them. If one of the damaged aircraft had drifted over land before it plunged, it could have hit nearby Yankee Stadium, where a crowd of more than 48,000 was beginning to gather for an afternoon game. A wing or a rotor could have landed on Central Park or on a busy Manhattan sidewalk, causing massive casualties.

The FAA’S culture of adopting safety rules after the crash played a significant role in this collision, and that culture must change. It’s sad to think that lawsuits are a major force that can help achieve this needed improvement. It is not as if I have not said this before.

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