Lidle lawsuit update: the myth of "aileron failure"

More

As mentioned earlier, the families of Cory Lidle and Tyler Stanger are suing the Cirrus Design corporation for "wrongful death" in the crash that killed both men last year.

Also as mentioned earlier, those families deserve every bit of empathy and condolence for the lasting consequences of their losses. If you know what it can mean to children to lose a parent this way, you can only wish these families the best.

But in light of extra details about purported grounds for the suit, I have no sympathy at all for the attorneys who, I can only assume, have used the families' grief to talk them into taking this misguided step.

Two online aviation news sources -- Aero-News.Net and AVweb -- have carried updates about the case -- including, on AVweb, this press release from the law firm filing the suit. Or, this alleged press release; the law firm's own site doesn't have it at the moment. Indeed, I hope that this is all an error, press release and lawsuit alike, because at face value the claims therein are embarrassing.

Remember that the evidence to date is 100% consistent with one explanation of this crash: that Lidle and Stanger got to the end of the airspace "box canyon" on the East River and didn't take any of the avenues that might have gotten them out. They didn't fly ahead into LaGuardia's airspace -- which presumably would have let them continue safely but would have led to later trouble from the FAA. They did not attempt a U-turn to the right, into the crosswind pushing them toward Manhattan, which would have minimized their turning radius over the ground and their drift into the city. And they didn't successfully complete their attempted U-turn to the left, which would have been very challenging under the best of circumstances. (The best circumstances would include: familiarity with the area, which neither man had; perfect weather, which they also didn't have; starting the turn on the far bank of the river, which they didn't do; and a slower speed entering the turn than they apparently were going. And of course, no cross wind to blow them over Manhattan.)

None of this is certain, of course -- and what is generally regarded as the conclusive document in such cases, the finding of "probable cause" by the National Transportation Safety Board, has not been released. But everything now known fits this explanation -- as the NTSB emphasized in an unusual news update a few weeks after the crash.

I say all this analytically rather than judgmentally. Anyone who has flown airplanes has made mistakes whose consequences could easily have been more disastrous than they turned out to be. The bromide for this in the flying world is "filling the experience bucket before the luck bucket runs dry." My own worst case of this sort... well, it's still too painful to think about, even though by luck it did no damage at all. With slightly different luck Lidle and Stanger might well have avoided the condos and continued their flight shaken but alive.

So what does the lawsuit say? That the crash was the result of a "catastrophic failure" of the flight control system. Specifically, that the ailerons -- the controls that determine an airplane's bank and therefore are the main way (along with the rudder) that planes turn right or left -- failed in a way that doomed the pilots.

Oh please. As the lawsuit points out, aileron failures have indeed been involved in two previous Cirrus crashes. But the details of those crashes underscore how totally different they were from this case.

The first aileron-induced crash, which happened nearly eight years ago in March, 1999, was devastating to the Cirrus Design community. It killed the company's lead test pilot, Scott Anderson, a Stanford graduate and Renaissance man who was a beloved and charismatic figure in Duluth, Minn, where the company is based. (The NTSB analysis of the crash is here. I wrote about Anderson, and the crash, in Free Flight.) The important point about this crash is that it occurred before the first airplane was delivered to the first customer. This was still in the test period -- and specifically because of this crash, the ailerons were re-designed to prevent their possible jamming against the rest of the wing. That jamming is what killed Scott Anderson -- also, that this test model of the plane was not yet equipped with the famous Cirrus parachute, which would have given him another option when the plane became impossible to control. After the ailerons were redesigned, no similar case of jamming has (to the best of my knowledge, and I've been looking) ever been reported.

The second aileron-induced crash was also consequential for Cirrus Design, because it was the first confirmed "save" by the parachute in the plane. In October, 2002, a Cirrus owner named Lionel Morrison had taken his plane in for maintenance work. As later became clear, the left aileron was never properly re-attached to the plane at the end of the maintenance. The aileron held in place for the first minute or two of Morrison's first post-maintenance flight. But when he had climbed to about 2,000 feet, the aileron pulled loose from the plane -- and Morrison, like Anderson before him, had great difficulty controlling the plane. (Sooner or later, an airplane that loses an aileron is bound to crash, since the pilot can't control its bank or direction of flight.) Morrison gained as much altitude as he could -- then pulled the parachute. He drifted down safely on a golf course and left the plane unhurt. (NTSB report here.) Morrison later gave speeches saying that the parachute had saved him. What had endangered him was an out and out maintenance failure, as if a car's brake lines had been cut.

On the basis of this, the law firm informs us that "Cirrus airplanes have a history of aileron failures." Right. And that history has absolutely nothing to do with any existing evidence about this crash.

Cirrus owners and pilots have their own very active online bulletin board. Through the last eight years (including the six years when I owned a plane like Lidle's) I've followed the voluminous postings about the experiences pilots have had with their planes. People complain about practically anything -- and sometimes real patterns and problems emerge. Perhaps the best-known instance is a change in the design of the plane's brakes, to keep them from overheating and possibly causing fires during very hard stops. But I don't recall any of the several thousand members complaining, ever, that ailerons had failed in a way anything like this suit contends.

Again, all my sympathy to the Lidle and Stanger families. The kindest --and most honorable --thing their lawyers could do for them would be to spare them this misguided suit.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In