In yet another example of plaintiffs’ attorneys throwing whatever they can at the wall to see what will stick, a federal court judge in Florida has found the FAA 65% to blame for the crash of a PA-31 back in December, 2001. A Channel 4 News Article in Jacksonville reported the judge’s decision after a bench trial (where the judge decides the facts without a jury). Apparently the judge held that the FAA air traffic controllers failure to provide the pilot with current weather conditions was 65% responsible for the crash.
The NTSB Factual Report indicates that the pilot obtained a flight service briefing before departing on an instrument flight rules trip from Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport to Augustine, FL, with Craig Airport listed as his alternative. The pilot subsequently took off, missed his approach into Augustine, diverted to Craig Airport and then missed his approach there. He then went to Jacksonville International and missed his approach to that airport. While executing the missed approach at Jacksonville, the aircraft crashed.
Apparently the issue at trial was whether the Jacksonville ATC controller provided the pilot with the current ATIS information that indicated a 100 foot ceiling and 1/4 mile visibility. However, the NTSB Probable Cause listed the cause of the accident as “[T]he pilot becoming spatially disoriented and losing control of the airplane during a missed approach resulting in the airplane descending uncontrolled and colliding with trees and the ground.” The weather at Jacksonville was not included as a cause or factor.
In my opinion, the NTSB was right and the federal judge was wrong. Unfortunately for the FAA, the plaintiff’s attorney was able to confuse the judge with the issue of whether the pilot was provided with the current weather. I haven’t read the judges opinion, but the weather issue appears to have distracted the judge from the real issue: that the pilot simple lost control of his aircraft while trying to execute a missed approach. The NTSB report provides no indication that low fuel was a factor in the pilot choosing Jacksonville over some other alternate or that the published missed approach procedure was inaccurate. Also, there is no indication of hazardous weather such as icing or thunderstorms.
Absent such circumstances, I am not sure how a pilot’s failure to properly execute a missed approach procedure can be blamed on an alleged failure to provide the current weather. Looks to me like the plaintiffs just got lucky and managed to get an incorrect theory to stick to the wall.