Schiavo pits pilots against industry in RJ crash suit

 - September 25, 2006, 2:33 PM

Former DOT Inspector General Mary Schiavo’s latest crusade against the aerospace establishment has placed Bombardier, General Electric, Honeywell, Northwest Airlines, KGS Electronics and Parker Hannifin at the center of a lawsuit filed on behalf of the families of the crew who died in the crash of a Pinnacle Airlines Bombardier CRJ200 on Oct. 14, 2004, outside Jefferson City, Mo.

The suit, filed in Broward County, Fla., by Schiavo’s law firm, Motley Rice LLC, claims that defective parts and an ill-maintained aircraft led to the death of Pinnacle Airlines pilots Jesse Rhodes and Richard Peter Cesarz. At press time the NTSB had yet to issue a final report, but public hearings on the crash over the summer revealed a wealth of facts both sides will undoubtedly reference.

While on a repositioning flight from Little Rock, Ark., to Minneapolis, captain Rhodes and first officer Cesarz took the 50-seat CRJ to its service ceiling of 41,000 feet to, in the words of the captain, “have a little fun.”

Flight data recorder (FDR) data show that the airplane maintained 41,000 feet for three-and-a-half minutes before the stick shaker activated. Over the next 20 seconds the stick shaker and stick pusher activated four times, after which the airplane entered a 32-degree nose-down pitch attitude and an 80-degree left bank. About a second later the FDR stopped recording, but the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) continued to run.

Once the FDR started recording again at FL290, it indicated zero oil pressure and fuel flow to both engines. But the pilots at first reported only a single engine failure and didn’t report a dual flameout until they reached 11,000 feet. Only then did they ask for a vector to “any airport.”

The post-crash investigation revealed conditions consistent with engine core lock, a condition that can occur after the core of a multi-spool jet engine stops spinning due to insufficient airspeed or airflow. Cooling of the core and outer spool at different rates causes different rates of contraction, resulting in binding until the temperatures return to equilibrium. At 300 knots a so-called windmill restart can achieve rotation, but beginning at descent through 20,000 feet the CRJ’s glidespeed never exceeded 170 knots.

Debating the Effect of ‘Core Lock’

Motley Rice charges that the defendants knew of the potential for core lock and other faults in the engine’s design and failed to adequately address them. “Our clients, Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Cesarz, were operating under approved guidelines at legal altitudes and did everything in their power to restart the engines,” said Schiavo.

“However, this proved impossible because of core lock, oil pump malfunction, faulty restart instructions and other problems with the aircraft. It is a horrible tragedy that they had to die because of these known engine problems. With this litigation, we intend to further the safety of our regional carriers and safeguard pilots and crew to enable the provision of safer flights for their passengers.”

During a public hearing on the accident held by the NTSB over the summer, a GE manager told a Safety Board panel that the company knew of the core-lock phenomenon since 1985 and that design improvements have reduced the rate of core lock during test flights, from 80 percent in 1988 to 1.5 percent today. He also said he saw no evidence that core lock prevented the pilots from restarting the engines, however, and that core lock had never resulted in the catastrophic failure of a CF34. Nevertheless, on May 16 Bombardier published a revised Airplane Flight Manual procedure for dual-engine failure aimed at improving chances of recovery. On June 2 the FAA issued a Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin instructing pilots on how to avoid the dangers of core lock.

Clean Bill of Health

The accident aircraft had flown 10,161 hours and its last major inspection revealed no major problems. The right engine, installed new on Oct. 23, 2003, had logged 2,303 hours and 1,971 cycles. The left engine, taken from another airplane and installed April 6, 2004, had amassed 8,856 hours and 8,480 cycles since new. Records show that during an A4 check on June 9, 2004, mechanics replaced the left engine igniters. During an A5 check on August 18 they replaced the right engine igniters.

However, another flight crew aborted the airplane’s last scheduled flight when an indicator light alerted them to a possible problem with the bleed-air system during taxi. Shortly afterward Pinnacle flew two mechanics to Little Rock to repair the 14th stage bleed sensing loop on the right engine.