Air Law Blog of William Angelley, aircraft accident attorney. BVA law practices aviation litigation, personal injury litigation and business litigation. William Angelley is a former Navy Pilot now practicing aviation litigation. He Represents victims and their families affected by plane and helicopter crashes.
The TSA recently announced that it was considering doing away with security screening at smaller airports across the country. No decision has been made yet, but the idea has sparked controversy and rightfully so.
September 11, 2018 will be the 17thanniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Two of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 11, Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari, drove from Boston to Portland, Maine the day before the attacks. On the morning of 9-11, they flew back to Boston, where they boarded the flight to Los Angeles. Some people have hypothesized that the two men did this to avoid the potentially stricter security scrutiny they might have received in Boston.
America’s airports make up a vast network, and the security chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In other words, the efficacy of the security on any particular flight depends not just on the security efforts of the agents at the big airports, it depends just as much on the efforts of the agents at the small airports too.
The TSA’s idea leaves smaller planes, departing from the smaller airports, completely exposed. It also subjects the larger airports and larger planes to risk. If the TSA dispenses with security at the airport in Longview, Texas, for example, then a terrorist could board a flight there, fly into D/FW International and then board any flight anywhere without ever having to go through security. That is just an objectively bad idea. Whatever amount of money is saved is certainly not worth the risk.
Hopefully the reports regarding the TSA are just someone thinking out loud and do not reflect a real plan that is being seriously considered. Surely the folks at the TSA have more sense than this. Surely.
A tour helicopter, a Hughes 369, crashed near Bowie, Texas on Saturday morning. Three people on board were severely injured. Not much information is available at this point but, according to news reports, those injured may have been wounded veterans. The flight reportedly involved a hunting trip. Although we don’t yet know if Saturday’s helicopter crash was caused by a maintenance issue or a piloting issue, it is a reminder of the potential dangers of private helicopter tours.
I flew helicopters for the Navy, and I can testify firsthand that they can be a lot of fun. Helicopters can give you access to areas that no other aircraft can. That said, I have also seen firsthand that helicopters are very unforgiving machines with lots of moving parts. Because of this, helicopters require more maintenance than airplanes to keep them safe, and they require diligent, well-trained pilots to operate them. In this case, for some reason the flight descended into trees.
The recent helicopter crash in the East River of New York and one in the Grand Canyon unfortunately demonstrate that not all commercial helicopter charter operations are safe. What can passengers do to protect themselves? Before choosing to take a helicopter tour, find out all you can about the company. The best place to begin is with the company itself.
Always inquire about the pilots’ credentials, the maintenance requirements, whether the company maintains adequate insurance and if the company has ever had any FAA violations. Find out who your specific pilot will be and check him or her out. If another company does the maintenance, make sure and check that company out as well.
In addition, the FAA website has a database of all pilots, which will tell you what credentials the pilot has and what the pilot’s current medical status is. Unfortunately, however, the site does not tell the public about any past flight violations. If a company is reluctant to answer your questions, gives vague answers or does not carry insurance, find another company. Finally, make sure you plan your trip far enough out to give yourself time to properly check out the company.
There is no denying that helicopter tours can be fun. But, when things go wrong, the results are tragic. And, even with the above due diligence, there is still no guarantee that nothing will go wrong. In the meantime, hopefully the NTSB will soon get to the bottom of the cause of Saturday’s helicopter crash.
On May 3, 2018, the NTSB provided an investigative update on the cause of the tragic incident of April 17 aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 1380. As previously postulated, it appears that the root cause involved metal fatigue in one of the left engine’s fan blades.
A full copy of the update can be accessed through this link. In sum, however, the number 13 fan blade separated at the root, which is the part just above where the blade attaches to the disk that holds all of the fan blades. The report references this area as the “dovetail.” The dovetail sort of looks like an upside down Christmas tree and the disk and the blades mate together with the blade fitting into the notched area of the disk.
An examination of the number 13 dovetail area under a scanning electron microscope showed characteristics of low cycle metal fatigue. Low cycle metal fatigue involves a failure after a relatively low number of cycles (in this case engine starts and stops) but high loads (the fan blades spinning at a high rate of speed under the pressure of the entering air).
A simple illustration of low cycle metal fatigue would be taking a paper clip and straightening it out, then bending it over in one direction until the tips touch, and then doing the same thing in the other direction. It doesn’t take many times of doing that to break the paper clip in half.
The problem is that commercial aircraft fan blades are, at least in theory, designed to handle the loads that they experience. The flip side of that is that all metal parts that are under a load like the engine fan blades will experience fatigue forces. Nothing lasts forever. As a result, it seems logical either that there is a batch of fan blades that are not strong enough to withstand the design loads of the engine or that the current inspection and/or replacement periods are too long. There could be other causes too, but these seem, based on the information known so far, to be the most likely.
In this case, the blades were overhauled in November 2012, and according to the NTSB, the incident occurred 10,712 engine cycles after that overhaul. Perhaps allowing that time interval and number of cycles between overhauls is imprudent.
The NTSB update states that the fan blades had been lubricated and visually inspected six times between the overhaul and the accident, but there were not any more extensive types of inspections done to check for cracking in the blades. Perhaps this policy too is inadequate.
Another Southwest Airlines plane experienced a fan blade break in Pensacola on August 27, 2016. Following that incident, Southwest Airlines and the FAA began looking at more thorough inspection protocols for fan blades, but unfortunately, no such procedures were put in place in time to avoid this tragedy.
After an initial review of the left engine of the Southwest Airlines aircraft that made an emergency landing yesterday in Philadelphia, the NTSB discovered that one of the 24 fan blades on the engine broke off in flight and caused the catastrophic uncontained failure.
Looking at the picture below, one can see that a fan blade is in fact missing and that it broke off near the root, or attachment point. The missing blade is right in front of the elbow of the gentleman pictured.
The engine involved was a model CFM 56-7B, which is the exclusive engine used on 737 aircraft. CFM International was the manufacturer and is a 50/50 joint company between General Electric USA and Safran Aircraft Engines of France. According to FAA records, the engine and aircraft both appear to have been manufactured in 2000.
The CFM 56 series engines are turbo fan engines. Turbo fan engines generate thrust partly like a propeller driven engine and partly like a true jet engine. The fan in front, which is where the blade broke away in this incident, turns much the same way as an aircraft propeller and generates thrust from that rotation. The remaining air coming into the engine passes the fan and goes into a series of compressor modules where the air is compressed in several stages. The compressed air is then directed into a combustion area where it mixes with fuel and is ignited. Once ignited, some of the expanding gases go out the nozzle in the rear, creating true jet thrust, and the rest is used to keep the engine and the fan turning. Thus, the turbo fan engine gets some of its thrust from the jet exhaust and some from the turning fan.
This link will take you to a CFM company web site where you can scroll down to see a video that explains the basic workings of the CFM 56 engine. Also, for the truly technically curious, below is a pdf of the FAA Type Certificate Data Sheet for the CFM 56 engine.
It is not yet known what caused the fan blade to break, but the NTSB indicated that it found some evidence of metal fatigue at the blade attachment point. After a technically similar incident in 2016 involving Southwest Airlines, the FAA ordered ultrasonic inspections of similar fan blades to check for fatigue and other defects. It is not yet known whether the engine on this aircraft had been inspected prior to yesterday’s tragedy.
This incident, however, emphasizes that it is absolutely critical for the FAA, Southwest Airlines and all other air carriers to stay on top of safety and maintenance issues. Stay tuned, as we will continue to provide updates as more information becomes available.
Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 made an emergency landing in Philadelphia today after the aircraft’s left engine apparently exploded while en route from New York’s La Guardia Airport to Dallas Love Field. The plane landed safely, but apparently one passenger was seriously injured.
As this incident just happened, it is too soon to know what caused the engine to fail so violently. It is also too soon to know how the passenger was injured. If the engine exploded, however, there is a real possibility that the passenger was struck by flying debris that entered the cabin.
The aircraft involved was a737-700 model, which is used widely by Southwest Airlines and other carriers. And, like most newer commercial aircraft, the 737 has historically been a safe platform. Nonetheless, another Southwest Airlines flight had to make an emergency landing in Salt Lake City in February after one of its engines caught fire.
Whether these incidents have any correlation to one another and whether they were caused by faulty maintenance or some other issue will be explored during the investigation. In the meantime, we will continue to follow this incident and will update this post as more is discovered.
An EC-130 helicopter operated by Papillon Airways, a tour company, crashed and exploded in flames in the Grand Canyon on Saturday. Three people were killed and another four were critically injured.
The passengers boarded the helicopter in Boulder City, Nevada, near Las Vegas, to fly to the western end of the Grand Canyon. It is unclear at this point what caused the crash. The helicopter involved had made several trips out to the canyon earlier that day. The company seems to have flown the same oblong route on each flight. The helo would take off from the airport and then fly northeast for a bit, turn east to the canyon, and then head south and then back to the west for the return trip to the Papillon Airways home base.
One oddity that occurred on the trip immediately before the fatal flight was that the helicopter abruptly turned around on the eastern (outbound) leg of the trip and returned home without touring the canyon. Right now, there is no indication of why this occurred. It could have been as simple as an airsick passenger, or it could have been the result of some other issue.
What we seem to know at this point is that on the final flight, the helicopter departed the airport and headed east out to the canyon, and then its last known position in flight was a southeasterly heading, possibly as it was completing its turn back to the west and toward home.
We do not yet know what caused the crash, but all aviation accidents are the result of some anomaly in man, machine or environment – or some combination of the three.
Not much has been reported about the Papillon Airways pilot in this case. According to FAA records, he held a Commercial pilot’s license in helicopters since 2008 and listed Long Beach, California as his residence. We do not know his experience level, or if he was prior military or civilian-trained. We don’t know if he flew earlier that day or the day before, and if so, for how long. We don’t know if he had a reputation for being a hot-dog or a strict rule follower. But, the answers to these questions will help find or at least evaluate the possible causes of the crash.
One Arizona news source stated that the helicopter received a new engine in 2011. Engine failures in helicopters are extraordinarily serious and dangerous events. Every helicopter pilot practices autorotations to prepare for a possible engine failure emergency, but the truth is that without an engine, a helicopter is about as aerodynamically robust as a refrigerator. And autorotations in actual emergency situations are no picnic, especially when the landing site is a rugged canyon floor.
Some have speculated that high winds may have played a role. That could certainly be true. High wind speed makes helicopters more difficult to maneuver or, if the helicopter was flying fast, as it appears to have been doing just prior to the crash, the winds can overstress critical controls like the main or tail rotor blade systems. The EC 130 has a fenestron instead of a traditional tail rotor, but that system is also vulnerable to overstressing forces.
Additional information is needed before the actual cause of the crash can be determined. We will know more soon, as the NTSB removes and evaluates the wreckage of the downed helicopter. Papillon Airways is also assisting with the investigation.
Delta Airlines is changing the rules for service animals on its flights. In summary, Delta will be requiring additional documentation for service animals effective March 1, 2018. The new rules require proof of health/vaccinations at least 48 hours in advance of the flight. For support animals, a signed letter from the passenger attesting to the animal’s ability to behave appropriately and a doctor’s letter stating the need for the animal.
Federal law has been interpreted to require airlines to allow support animals. But, federal regulations don’t go much further. Notably, there’s no agreement on the definition as to what constitutes a comfort support animal. Service dogs fly for free and the animals are not required to be crated during the flight. But, Delta Airline’s rules clearly recognize two different categories of animals. First, there are service animals for visually impaired or otherwise disable passengers. The second is emotional support animals.
The first categories of animals receive specific, extensive training; the second category may not. Some people are pretending their pets are support animals to avoid paying a fee and to keep their pet in the main cabin. And, while most people envision a dog when discussing service animals, support animals are not limited to that. Passengers reportedly have tried to bring quite a variety of animals on board, including snakes, turkeys, spiders and possums, claiming such animals were comfort animals. Delta Airline’s new rules aim to curb these abuses.
American Airlines recently experienced a scheduling glitch that left thousands of holiday flights without pilots and other staff and at risk for cancellation. The Allied Pilots Association (the pilots’ union) estimated that approximately 15,000 flights were without a pilot. Apparently the computer system that pilots use to schedule their flights and to request time off, was handing out vacation time like candy during this busy time of the year.
American initially offered pilots time and a half to fly during those times. The union, however, filed a grievance asserting that this violates the terms of the pilots’ contract relating to overtime. Clearly not the response American was hoping for.
However, the pilots’ union worked with American over the weekend to resolve the situation. Ultimately pilots will be paid 200% of their normal pay (or double the usual salary), and holiday flights will go on as scheduled. That said, as always, travelers should check with their carrier (whether it’s American or another carrier) to ensure that no last minute schedule changes occur.
AAA estimates that about 4 million Americans will travel by air this Thanksgiving. That represents the largest increase in years. With that increase, comes increased frustration. This blog, hopefully, will provide some ways that travelers can prevent, or at least limit, that frustration.
The bottom line is to plan ahead and bring your patience. You should leave for and arrive at the airport early. In fact, you should arrive particularly early during the holidays. There will always be delays that can’t be anticipated, so allow extra time. Check-in lines will be longer, security lines will be longer, and the wait to retrieve your bags will be longer. Absolutely everything will take longer with Thanksgiving air travel.
Double-check the status of your flight, especially if you are flying from or to a destination with inclement weather. Flights tend to get backed up and delayed when airports get busy, and bad weather can really throw a wrench into things.
Know your airline’s policies on matters that may come up like schedule changes, overbooked flights, cancelled flights or lost baggage. Take a look at our blog on summer travel for some considerations on this point.
If you are traveling with young children, make sure that you have plenty of activities for them. Whatever patience you have, they have less, so plan accordingly. Books, crayons, games, or favorite movies or shows can make a delay much more bearable for everyone.
With Thanksgiving air travel, you have no control over the schedule, but with a little preparation you can help keep any bumps in the road from ruining your holiday spirit. Stay Zen and have a happy Thanksgiving!
In a move that had everyone shaking heads and thinking that someone has seen Top Gun too many times, an Air Berlin pilot elected to do a fly-by of the airport tower. The fly-by involved a close approach on landing, then pulling up quickly while banking sharply so as to closely buzz the tower before coming in for a second approach. While performing this stunt, there were over 200 passengers on board. The flight, an Airbus A330, originated in Miami and was on final approach for landing in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Pilots are trained for such a procedure, but they are generally limited to safety or operational issues. Pilots do not make a choice to perform them as it presents an increase in risk to passengers and others nearby. It seems to have taken airport employees by surprise. The photographs are outright frightening.
Some news outlets are reporting that passengers were screaming in horror, no doubt thinking they were about to plunge into the tower. Unfortunately, under the Montreal Convention (which governs international flights), passengers may only recover for physical injuries and emotional injuries (or mental anguish) that arise out of those physical injuries. Pure emotional distress is not recoverable. So, no matter how much passengers feared for their lives over this decision, no damages are recoverable for that distress.
So what was the pilot possibly thinking? He says that he intended it as a goodbye, as Air Berlin filed for bankruptcy and this was its final long haul flight. Meanwhile, the pilot has been suspended and authorities and Air Berlin have launched an investigation. “Hey Mav, you know the name of that truck driving school? Truck Master I think it is. I might need that.” Goose – Top Gun.