Charter operator settles wrongful-death lawsuit

 - July 31, 2008, 10:07 AM

A wrongful-death lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court by the families of three of the 15 passengers killed in the crash of a Gulfstream III attempting to land at Aspen, Colo., on March 29, 2001, was settled last month, completing litigation surrounding this accident. All the other cases brought by the families of the other victims had been settled, according to the defendants’ attorney.

Defendants Avjet–the Burbank, Calif. air-charter company that operated the GIII (and admitted liability)–and the heirs of Robert Frisbie, who worked for Avjet, piloted the jet and also died in the crash, agreed to pay $11.7 million to the plaintiffs (to be paid by the defendants’ insurer, AIG). A jury had already awarded the families $10.2 million in the compensatory damage phase of the one-week trial held in Los Angeles Superior Court last month. The settlement was reached just before the start of the punitive damage phase of the trial.

Plaintiffs alleged the pilots “exposed the passengers to undue risk of harm and death” when they attempted to land the airplane at Aspen “under unsafe weather conditions and in violation of the airport’s curfew.” They further claimed that the defendants’ conduct was “reckless, as more than 10 federal, state and local regulations were violated.”

Doomed from the Start

The NTSB’s final report on the crash, issued in June last year, indicated that from the very start little went right for this flight. A much later than planned departure from Los Angeles International Airport set in motion a race to beat an approaching airport curfew, ever darkening skies, deteriorating weather at the destination and a critical fuel situation (AIN, July 2002, page 1).

The Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the accident was the flight crew’s operating the airplane as much as 500 feet below the MDA without visual reference to the runway due to “numerous procedural errors and deviations.” Many factors were cited as contributing to the accident: the “unclear wording” of a notam dealing with a nighttime restriction of the approach to the airport and the agency’s failure to communicate this restriction to the Aspen tower; the inability of the flight crew to see the mountains adequately because of the darkness and deteriorating weather conditions; pressure from the charter customers for the captain to land at Aspen; the airplane’s delayed departure; and the airport’s nighttime landing restriction.

But the accident investigation also alerted the NTSB to what it believes is an anomaly in the FARs concerning the definition of day and night in general and possibly a factor contributing to the accident in particular. The Safety Board has asked the FAA to revise restrictions that currently refer to night operations at airports in mountainous terrain to account for the “entire period of insufficient ambient light conditions” rather than the “30 minutes after sunset” currently used.

The GIII accident occurred about 30 minutes after official sunset, which compiled with–though just barely–current regulations. Yet the Safety Board determined that the sun would have set below the mountainous terrain about 25 minutes before official sunset. Witnesses reported that it was “very dark” at the time of the crash. Visibility was 10 miles in light snow. Although the pilot told ATC that he had the runway in sight, that “would not ensure that he could also have seen intervening unlighted terrain, especially given a higher-than-normal descent rate and his maneuvering to align with an upsloping runway,” said the NTSB.

In its response, the FAA said it will “establish a flight-inspection policy for evaluating the effect of terrain on minima or procedures limited to daylight only.” In concert with that, the agency will develop a “subtractive factor to sunset and an additive factor to sunrise to account for loss of light before the predicted sunset and [after] the predicted sunrise.”

Potential methods of assessing these factors, according to the FAA, “include on-site evaluation (on the ground and in flight), local experience gained from official sources (such as ATC facilities and local and state police agencies) and computer modeling.”

The intent of these actions, the FAA said, “is to provide guidance to pilots on [approach] procedure restrictions and prohibitions by referencing times relative to legal sunset/sunrise.” For example, a chart note might say: “Procedure NA SS-50 through SR+50.”

Pending development and issuance of the changes, the NTSB has classified its recommendation as “open–acceptable response.”

The FAA is also considering another NTSB recommendation resulting from the accident investigation. The Safety Board has asked the FAA to require Part 135 on-demand charter operators with aircraft requiring two pilots to establish an FAA-approved crew resource management program that is in accordance with that for Part 121 carriers.