Does GEX lightning-strike study strike out?

 - April 2, 2007, 6:35 AM

Banking and oil heir Michael Huffington, who is suing Bombardier over a Global Express he first ordered in 1995 and later rejected after he learned the aircraft had been struck by lightning, has produced a consultant’s report hoping to bolster his lawsuit against Bombardier. That report claims that the GEX is far more likely to be hit by lightning and suffer serious damage than its competitors. Bombardier disputes the report.

The report, prepared by The Arvai Group in Windham, N.H., alleges that the Global Express “experiences lightning strikes at an alarmingly higher rate–20 to 25 times greater–than other similar aircraft, including the Gulfstream IV and V and the Falcon 900.” Arvai also contends that damage to the fuselage of the disputed Global Express during shipping wasn’t properly repaired and “may have contributed to the lightning strike.”

The report contains details of the supposed lightning damage and the extent of the repairs done to the Global Express in question. Arvai concludes that the lightning strike “resulted in damage that could lead to potential safety hazards,” and “based upon our [14-year] experience in the aviation industry and after reviewing the nature and severity of the damage to the aircraft, we are of the opinion that the lightning strike will have a serious impact on the value and marketability of the aircraft.”

At first glance, it might seem that the Arvai report will help Huffington’s case–that is, if it’s accurate. Arvai concedes, however, it could not physically evaluate repairs because it did not have access to the aircraft to make inspections. And AIN has learned that the aircraft in question–hit by lightning in March 2003 during an evaluation flight by Bombardier–was subsequently repaired by the manufacturer, then sold and put into operation by a new customer last month.

Huffington, a former U.S. congressman from California with wide-ranging business interests, signed the purchase agreement for the Global Express in 1995 and placed a $12 million deposit. At Bombardier’s request, in 1997 he accepted a delayed delivery, and last year when offered the Global that had been struck by lightning, Huffington refused to accept it. Bombardier subsequently offered him a Challenger and another Global, but for reasons in contention, Huffington would not take delivery. Both Huffington’s and Bombardier’s lawsuits relate to the termination provisions of the purchase agreement, in particular who owes whom how much.

Ernest Arvai, president of The Arvai Group, told AIN that the data in his report on the number of times a particular model airplane had been struck by lightning came from the aircraft manufacturers and can be matched to specific tail numbers. He declined to elaborate further. He did say that he firmly stands by his report.

To obtain data that would perhaps refute or support the Arvai report, AIN asked noted business aviation accident analyst Robert E. Breiling Associates in Boca Raton, Fla., to look into the lightning-strike history among business jets.

Statistics Do Not Match

According to Arvai, there have been 12 reported lightning strikes involving Global Expresses, or 10 percent of the worldwide fleet, compared with nine for the GIV (1.8 percent of the fleet), six for the Falcon 900 (1.87 percent of the fleet), and four for the GV (2.13 percent of the fleet).

“Our review of competitive data and a comparison with the descriptions of damage from lightning incidents provided by Bombardier indicated that competing aircraft not only experienced fewer lightning strikes, but that the damage caused by them was typically less severe,” reported the Arvai study.

Although Breiling’s figures represent lightning strike claims reported to insurers by only U.S. operators between 2001 and 2003, (the years for which he had accessible insurance data) little correlation can be found. For example, the Breiling report shows no lightning-strike claims at all filed for the 86 Globals operated in the U.S. The incident to the Huffington Global happened while the aircraft was in the care, custody and control of Bombardier, and apparently no insurance claim was ever submitted.

The Breiling study also shows that the GIV/IV-SP series reported the most strikes–18 (or 4.3 percent of the U.S. fleet). According to Breiling, Falcon 900s were hit by lightning on eight occasions (also 4.3 percent of the U.S. fleet). And GV operators submitted claims for three hits, representing 1.8 percent of the fleet.

The Hawker 1000 was the only other business jet besides the Global Express identified in the Breiling study that escaped being struck by lightning during the three-year period of the study. Next to the 18 strikes reported for the GIV, the next highest series of strikes was 14 each for the Beechjet 400 (3.9 percent of the U.S. fleet), the Citation 650/750 (2.9 percent of the fleet) and the Learjet 45 (8.1 percent of the fleet).

In addition, the Breiling report indicates hull loss dollars paid by the insurers (after deductions) from lightning strikes are typically far less than other, more common sources of damage. For example, about $1.3 million was paid out in response to the 18 hits on GIVs–an average of less than $74,000 per incident. Granted, the highest claim payout was $350,000.

Although it’s conceivable that all the 12 GEX lightning strikes reported by Arvai could have taken place outside the time period investigated by Breiling or to non-U.S. aircraft, it is strange that the reported strikes for other aircraft do not follow a similar pattern. For the GIV, for example, Arvai reported nine strikes but Breiling found 18.

According to the Breiling study, lightning-strike damage between 2001 and 2003 resulted in claimed losses of $13.1 million, compared with $14.5 million from birdstrikes and $32.2 million for powerplant FOD.

Virtually all business jets are prone to lightning strikes and are designed to minimize their damage. Notwithstanding what the Arvai study contends, neither the NTSB nor the FAA has singled out any particular business-jet model as more susceptible to lightning strikes or more serious damage from strikes.