By Tally One Contributing Instructor Pilot: Wolf Emonds, CFI
In preparation for my defense I printed out the letter I had received from the FAA investigator stating that this airplane had gone down due to engine trouble. I took my FAR book highlighted to the part 91.403 (a) section. And I also printed off information that I could find on auto accidents. Did you know that if you loan your friend your car and the tire blows and the car is crashed you as the owner are responsible? It is not the driver’s fault. It might be firestone’s fault if they built a poor tire and it might be the tire store’s fault if they didn’t properly tighten the lug nuts or it might be the mechanic’s fault if he did a poor job on installing the spindle but in any case it is not the driver’s fault. However in any case the owner’s insurance pays first and then they may choose to go after other responsible parties.
One thing of note is that I asked my insurance company to please find me a few previously adjudicated cases that were similar to my own case. They told me they didn’t have time to deal with that research.
Things I learned by this time: always buy AOPA legal services plan, never fly another person’s airplane if they do not have their own hull damage insurance, never trust your own insurance. If you own an airplane you are not buying insurance so much to cover the airplane as you are buying it to cover your home and other monetary assets in the event of a problem. Imagine if you owned an airplane that didn’t get successfully landed in a farm field but had stalled, spun and crashed through the roof a mobile home killing a family at the dinner table?
The day of the arbitration –
I gather my witnesses (my mechanic friend that had witnessed the crash and helped the NTSB guy do the after-crash testing and, of course, Ron who had been my passenger that day.)
We meet up in the courtroom and are sworn in by the judge. David, as the plaintiff, tells his side of the events. He is very clear and is completely respectful of me. He never says one bad thing about me or my flying. When he is done with his story the Judge then asks me for my story. I explain that I pretty much am in complete agreement with David. I note that there are tiny changes I might make but none of which have any real significance. The core of the issue is I borrowed an airplane and it’s engine failed after take off at low altitude. I have insurance, but they won’t pay based on this (and I show my various FAA reports, letters, and research). You, Mr. Judge sir, must decide.
The judge thinks for a few moments and he declares: I see no evidence here that the airplane was not airworthy. The fact that it failed to maintain powered flight is not evidence enough. The annual inspection is just an inspection and effectively expires the moment the airplane leaves the shop. I believe that you, Mr. Emonds, are a highly skilled pilot or you would not be here alive enough to tell me this story. Dave, I like you, and Mr. Emonds I like you too. Just on a hunch let me ask you something Dave. If you had a brand new airplane today would you let Mr Emonds fly it?
Dave answers, “Yes of course he’s great pilot and I’d let him fly my son around too.”
Then the judge says, “Ok here’s the deal, I find for the plaintiff and I’ll award replacement cost of the airplane plus court costs, plus loss of use, plus storage, plus interest on that amount from the date of the crash.” ($20,750 for a $14,000 airplane!)
“I make this decision based on the old common law that says if you borrow your neighbor’s apple cart and the wheel falls off you shall replace the wheel before returning his cart.” Finally he says, “I hate insurance companies! I hate that they will take people’s money day in and day out for decades, but when it’s time to pay they try not to support their clients.”
The conclusion of the story is that my insurance company did pay the $20,750 to Dave. In my effort to shop for new insurance for the future I’ve relayed this story countless times and every attorney, and every insurance agent says the same thing: No, the owner is responsible and we would not agree with the judge. If you are the aircraft owner you darn well better have insurance before that aircraft leaves the hangar for any reason with any pilot.
So what did I learn? Basically nothing. I know that the term airworthy doesn’t even have a definition in the FAR 1.1 section of the Code of Federal Regulations. I don’t know who to believe and what to trust. I do know that the farce of an annual inspection is just pure hogwash because it doesn’t do anything and it has virtually no value [in court]. I learned that the terms “airworthy” and “airworthiness” also hold no value whatsoever.
Obviously a machine does not need to be capable of sustaining safe flight to be considered airworthy nor does the aircraft mechanic take any responsibility when he signs the annual inspection card with “I certify this aircraft to be in safe condition for flight”. The only time I would say this is not the case is if you are the mechanic in question. In that case you can bet someone will hold you to the ‘I certify’ part. I know that insurance companies are not on your side.
I know that being highly skilled, aware of weather, FAR’s, local area, and doing everything right, and having proper insurance coverage is not good enough to save you stress and hassles. I also know that I’m alive and I didn’t kill anyone that day so the outcome of the $20,750 is really irrelevant. I know Dave got one hell of a return on investment. I know that just because FAR part 91.403 clearly states the owner is responsible doesn’t mean it is necessarily make it true. It’s not the case unless you are the owner; in that eventuality you can be certain someone would hold you to it. I also know that no matter who had piloted that particular InterPlane Skyboy N582YB airplane into the air the next time, they would have had to deal with this mess, it just happened that it was me.
But the single largest thing I do know absolutely after all this: emergency procedure practice and raw stick and rudder flying is what I most drill my students on. Fly the airplane, don’t kill anyone on the ground, try to save your passenger, try to save yourself, minimize material damages and then walk away knowing you’ll have a crap shoot in court. You’ll also likely lose some friendships, but no matter what you’re alive and guilt free.
Side note: My friend and passenger that day Ron Barnes is thrilled to be alive and in fact excited to have witnessed the successful outcome of an impossible situation. So much so that Ron rented a flight simulator and flew our profile over and over again for several days. Ron claims he never once was able to complete the landing as we did that day without stalling, spinning, hitting the trees, or a handful of otherwise dreadful outcomes. I don’t know if he’s just a good friend blowing smoke to make me feel better or if it is actually true. I do know that having lots of practice flying simple airplanes into and out of challenging grass strips and drilling on emergency procedures can’t hurt when things diverge from your initial plan.