Hidden defects linked to small-airplane crashes

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. - A new investigation by USA TODAY and KARE 11 is raising questions about government investigations into private plane crashes.

In nearly 9 out of 10 crashes the National Transportation Safety Board blames pilot error. But we've uncovered evidence that NTSB investigators may be missing mechanical problems that make some planes unfit for flight.

Tricia Coffman cherishes the everyday things her husband Dave had with him on the last day of his life. A watch. A business card. A cell phone.

"I was the last person to call him," she recalled. "I just remember sitting on the floor and crying."

The Circuit City executive was a passenger on a Cessna Citation charter plane that went down near the Pueblo, Colorado, airport in 2005.

Eight people died.

Over the past five decades, nearly 45,000 people have been killed in private planes and helicopters, so-called "general aviation." That's roughly nine times the number of people who died in commercial crashes.

Former NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman acknowledged the problem.

"Everyone in the community understands we've got to do better," said Hersman.

Records show the NTSB cited pilots as a cause in 86 percent of general aviation crashes.

But a series of civil lawsuit results contradict the NTSB's findings. Courts found that in some cases aircraft design flaws or part malfunctions to blame. Not the pilots.

Our partners at USA TODAY found 21 verdicts totaling nearly $1 billion against manufacturers that the NTSB had exonerated.

MORE COVERAGE: Read USA Today's full investigation

"Very frequently the investigations done by private parties in litigation is more substantial than what was done by NTSB," said Thomas Byrne an aviation attorney who often represents aircraft manufacturers. "And we often find what really happened."

A 2005 Easter Sunday crash in northern Iowa is an example. Three people from the same family were killed, and NTSB blamed the pilot.

But the Stewart family sued and forced the manufacturer to turn over evidence that a faulty carburetor may have caused the plane to stall on take-off. The engine company didn't admit wrongdoing, but court records show it settled the case for $19 million.

So why do the government's own air safety experts miss these safety problems?

"They often don't even go to the accident scene and they rely upon first responders," said Bryne.

"Many times they'll turn the evidence, the engine, over to the engine manufacturer to do a teardown at the manufacturer's facility," added Bruce Lampert, an attorney who often represents pilots. "Often there is not even an NTSB member present."

John DeLisi, NTSB's Director of Aviation Safety, said the agency's goal is clear. "Here at the NTSB, our single goal is safety."

But officials admit NTSB's resources are stretched thin.

"They're not going to be able to do a deep dive into every single accident," acknowledged Hersman, the former chairman, "because the average investigator is probably handling 30 to 40 investigations as far as their case load every year."

Attorney Bruce Lampert said there can be grave consequences when the NTSB gets it wrong.

"If you continually blame the pilots, these institutional defects in the aircraft, in the engine, go on unrepaired, unfixed and continue to cause additional accidents in the future."

And that's apparently what happened in that Iowa crash.

A judge in the case found evidence the engine company "knew of ongoing problems" with its carburetors – and of "numerous plane crashes."

Three people died and an 8-year-old girl critically injured. All in a crash that might have been prevented.


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