Challenger owner sues over engine anomalies

 - October 4, 2007, 8:01 AM

How many in-flight engine shutdowns have you had in your career? For the crew of a General Electric CF34-powered Challenger 604 owned by David Wetherell, the answer would be two. One per engine, over a five-week period, in a brand-new aircraft with about 100 hr TT.

For Wetherell, chairman of CMGI, it seems it never rains but it pours as he’s watched his dot-com’s stock plunge from $150 a share to about $1 in the past 20 months. He formed Kittredge Aviation to acquire the personally owned Challenger, which is crewed and maintained under contract with Jet Aviation.

According to Kittredge Aviation personnel, the aircraft was purchased this past February. On April 1, when Wetherell was en route to his home in Massachusetts from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, the aircraft’s engine indication and crew alert system (EICAS) showed fluctuating oil pressure and elevated oil temperature in the number-one engine while the aircraft was flying at 41,000 ft.

‘Extremely Concerned’
The EICAS immediately sounded an alarm, triggering an engine-failure warning that was audible throughout the aircraft, causing the pilot to shut down the number-one engine. Wetherell was “extremely concerned” because the Challenger was over the Atlantic Ocean at least 300 mi from the nearest airport. ATC directed the aircraft to an emergency landing at the Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip, N.Y.

The General Electric representative who examined the engine afterwards, Wetherell said, determined that the oil level was low and directed maintenance personnel to replace the engine’s lube pump and to change the engine oil to Aeroshell 500. Wetherell said he was told the adjustments would solve the problem and that the aircraft was safe to fly.

On May 11 Wetherell was returning home from the West Coast when, approximately 80 mi from Chicago at 41,000 ft, an EICAS warning alerted the pilot that the number-two oil pressure was dropping and the oil temperature was rising at an alarming rate. The pilot immediately reduced power to that engine and descended to 33,000 ft. Once again, the pilot followed the emergency checklist procedure, this time shutting down the number-two engine. ATC directed the aircraft to an emergency landing at Chicago O’Hare Airport. After that incident, Wetherell said, a GE representative directed maintenance personnel to replace the number-two engine’s lube pump and to change the engine oil from Aeroshell 500 to Exxon 2380. Wetherell said he was again assured that the aircraft was completely safe to operate.
According to David Bunis, partner of Dwyer & Collora and Wetherell’s attorney, not long after the second occurrence Wetherell demanded an explanation from GE. In a face-to-face meeting, Bunis said, GE personnel informed Wetherell that the CF34 had a record of low-oil-pressure incidents at high altitude dating back to 1998, but it was amid thousands of hours of flight time, making it a rare occurrence. Bunis said GE reps told his client it was regrettable but the two failures were the result of “a random stacking of variables.” Wetherell was not impressed.

“David Wetherell has lost faith in Bombardier’s and General Electric’s ability to deliver on their promises of ‘superior technology, outstanding reliability and maximum safety,’” Bunis told AIN. “He was shocked to learn of the history of CF34 in-flight failures, which was not disclosed before his purchase of the aircraft. As any judge or juror would easily understand, he is unwilling to put his and his family’s lives in danger yet again, and he has not used the aircraft since the May 11 incident.”

Seeking Full Refund
In a July 31 letter to Remy St-Martin, director of Bombardier’s customer action center, Bunis wrote that Wetherell and Kittredge were revoking their acceptance of the defective aircraft and wanted to return it for a full refund of the purchase price, including the completion costs of the green aircraft in addition to their net out-of-pocket expenses. “You’d expect Bombardier would want to do the right thing by one of its customers to assure the rest of the customers that they’re committed to safety and acting responsibly,” the lawyer said.

According to Bunis, Bombardier refused the offer and Wetherell filed suit in the Superior Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts against Bombardier Aerospace Corp. and General Electric Co., seeking $22.26 million. The total includes $19.15 million for the green aircraft and an additional $3.11 million for interior finish work. Yet to be determined is recovery of out-of-pocket expenses and consequential damages. According to Bunis, consequential damages include attorney’s fees, the cost of hiring experts to give the plaintiff opinions on issues pertaining to the case and emotional distress. “At the time of the second incident,” he said, “David was traveling with his 12-year-old son on board the aircraft. Anyone with a family can understand the sort of emotional stress that would cause.”

A spokesman for GE Aircraft Engines said it was company policy not to comment on pending lawsuits. He did explain that the term “engine failure” had been frequently used incorrectly in this case. “Neither incident was an engine failure,” the spokesman told AIN. “These were pilot-commanded in-flight shutdowns.”

A Statistical Anomaly?
He stressed that the aircraft is designed to fly on one engine. The spokesman noted that the crew apparently got a reading of low oil pressure and made the decision to shut it down, correctly following the procedure outlined in the aircraft manual.
“What you have to understand is that the rate of in-flight shutdowns for that engine is .009 per 1,000 engine flight hours,” he explained. “What that means in a very practical sense is that any given engine would be shut down once every 30 to 40 years.” The spokesman acknowledged the unlikelihood of that happening twice in such a short period of time on the same airplane, but said the record indicates it is simply a statistical anomaly.

Bombardier Aerospace has a similar policy of not discussing pending lawsuits, but a spokesman did say, “The Challenger is a very mature program. We delivered the first one in December 1980. To date we have put 550 Challengers in service, including 226 model 604s. The whole fleet has more than two million flying hours with a dispatch reliability of 99.6 percent. We obviously have a low incident rate on the aircraft. The Challenger has been, and continues to be, a reliable and safe aircraft. Let’s face it, we have a lot of them out there because it’s a popular airplane.”