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Aircraft and Helicopter Crashes Blamed on Hidden Defects

Aircraft and Helicopter Crashes Blamed on Hidden Defects

June 18, 2014 — USA Today investigators are warning that defective parts and dangerous designs are to blame for thousands of aviation accidents.

Investigators found that nearly 45,000 people have died in helicopter or small plane crashes in the last 50 years. Federal safety agencies say that 86% of crashes were caused by pilot error, but USA Today calls this statistic into question with evidence that manufacturers covered up defects, lied to federal regulators, and failed to address known safety hazards for decades.

One problem is a policy known as “grandfathering,” which allows manufacturers to make brand-new planes and helicopters with the same design as the original — even when the original was designed in the 50s or 60s, before safety equipment like seatbelts became standard.

Another problem is that manufacturers sometimes wait decades to address known safety hazards. For example, the fuel tank on the R-44 helicopter was originally designed with two aluminum fuel tanks on either side of a 3-inch steel mast that controls the rotor. If the helicopter rolls, the fuel tank can leak fuel into the cockpit and spark a deadly fire — even after low-impact crashes.

Crash-resistant fuel tanks have been available since the 1970s, but manufacturers have resisted implementing them because they can add thousands of dollars to the cost of a helicopter. USA Today found reports of 79 deaths and 28 injuries in low-impact helicopter crashes since 1992.

The problems persist despite dozens of lawsuits against manufacturers.  Since 1994, manufacturers have paid damages of at least $1 million in 80 aviation accident lawsuits involving 215 deaths.

In one lawsuit, Lycoming paid $26 million to resolve claims that they failed to address problems with a carburetor part. Lawyers allege that Lycoming knew in 1963 that the carburetor could cause mid-air engine failures, but they blamed crashes on pilot error. Although the part was eventually re-designed, it remains on many aircraft and crashes continue to occur. One of the most recent crashes occurred in 2005 and left a young girl severely scarred.

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