March 1, 2004

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines has been reporting on the general aviation industry for nearly 20 years.

When is a $4 million verdict against you a victory? When it could have been a $100 million verdict.

Does anyone besides me see a problem with a $4 million verdict against a company that, according to the most authoritative accident investigation agency in the world, had no role in causing the accident? The victim here is a company called Parker Hannifin. Chances are that somewhere on the airplane you fly there's a component made by Parker Hannifin. Until early last year it was a major supplier of vacuum pumps — one of the few remaining. But at least partly as a result of the accident that led to this verdict it understandably bailed from this market.

Now, general aviation is down a major supplier, Parker Hannifin's insurance company is going to be out something like $2.8 million, and the three people aboard the airplane that crashed are still dead. No one won this case. It was a lose/lose verdict (see " Pilot Briefing," page 58).

Here, according to the NTSB, is how it happened:

On October 16, 2000, at about 6:35 p.m. local time, 44-year-old Randy Carnahan, by every account a meticulous, qualified pilot, showed up at St. Louis Downtown Airport (CPS) in Cahokia, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. He received a complete weather briefing for the 125-nm flight to County Memorial Airport (EIW) in New Madrid, Missouri. His flight in a Cessna 335, N8354N, should have taken little more than 30 minutes. The 335 is basically an unpressurized version of the Cessna 340 — a piston-powered, cabin-class twin.

Weather for the flight was not particularly good, but should not have been a problem for Carnahan, who had a commercial certificate with more than 1,800 hours total time including 735 hours of multi time and 513 hours in the Cessna 335. His law firm had purchased the airplane about three years earlier. He flew it often; in fact, he had flown it more than 80 hours in the previous 90 days.

During the briefing the flight service specialist reported the CPS weather as winds from 10 degrees at 9 knots, visibility 2 miles with rain and mist; broken clouds at 600 and 1,000 feet; 2,500 feet overcast; and a temperature/dew point of 15/14 Celsius. The briefer advised that there might be some turbulence along the route. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the destination.

At about 6:45 p.m., the pilot's father, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, arrived along with an aide, Chris Sifford. The senior Carnahan was running for the U.S. Senate at the time and the three had been in the area all day on campaign business. Gov. Carnahan was himself an instrument-rated private pilot who owned and flew a Beechcraft B33 Debonair. It was unclear whether the governor was sitting in the right front seat.

Trouble begins

The flight took off uneventfully from Runway 30L at 7:15 p.m. According to the U.S. Naval Observatory, twilight ended at 6:48 p.m. that day, so the flight was conducted at night in instrument conditions.

At 7:18 p.m., the pilot acknowledged a call from St. Louis Approach that he was in radar contact at 2,200 feet and was cleared to turn to a southerly heading and climb to 2,600 feet. Two minutes later the pilot reported a problem: "Five-Four-November, we're having some problems with primary attitude indicator, we'd like, um, little bit...higher climb." The ATC tapes would later show that the transmission was accompanied by a lot of background noise and the controller didn't understand the entire message. The controller told him he could climb in about 2 miles. About 45 seconds later, the controller asked the pilot to report altitude. The pilot replied, "We're at 3,600." The controller replied: "OK, the assigned altitude was 2,600 but climb and maintain 4,000." To which the pilot replied, "We got our hands full right now."

Understandably, the pilot now had the controller's attention: "Roger, you in some sort of difficulty?" Carnahan then replied, "We got a primary attitude indicator that's not uh reading properly having to try and fly off of copilot." The 335, like most cabin-class and larger twins, was equipped with a set of flight instruments on the copilot's side. Understanding the situation now, the controller told Carnahan to try and fly the airplane level on any heading and told him that he would try to get him to as high an altitude as possible.

For the next several minutes, Carnahan safely maneuvered the airplane through a number of turns and a climb to 7,000 feet. He also flew on headings and in level flight for a minute or two at a time, showing that, at that time, he had control of the airplane.

While attempting to turn to a new heading to go to a nearby airport with better weather, the pilot apparently lost control of the airplane at about 7:32 p.m.

Based on radar data, it appears as if the airplane plummeted at a 60-degree nose-down angle from 7,700 feet to 2,700 feet at a descent rate of some 26,000 feet per minute and airspeed greater than 300 knots. The impact occurred in a heavily wooded area near Hillsboro, Missouri.

The NTSB lists the probable cause as the pilot's failure to control the airplane while maneuvering because of spatial disorientation. Contributing to the accident were the failure of the airplane's primary attitude indicator and the adverse weather conditions, including turbulence. The board theorizes that Carnahan suffered from spatial disorientation in the turbulence while attempting to scan the attitude indicator on the right side and the remaining instruments in front of him.

As pilots, the message is one we hear often: Fly the airplane. The airplane would have been controllable by ignoring any attitude indicator inputs and instead focusing on the remaining instruments in front of the pilot, as we often do during partial-panel training.

The 335 had two attitude indicators, each driven by a separate vacuum pump — one on each engine. A manifold in the vacuum system allowed one pump to drive both indicators in the event of a failure of one pump.

You'll notice that nowhere in the NTSB probable cause did it mention vacuum pumps. The investigation indicated that both pumps were working. The board determined that the gyros in the primary attitude indicator had in fact failed, as reported by the pilot.

Grief-stricken family

The Carnahan family, understandably grief stricken, went on a campaign to remove any blame from their son. They sued several manufacturers with equipment on board the airplane, including Cessna. Cessna settled out of court for $1.6 million, admitting no liability. Several others have also settled out of court for a total of about $1.2 million. Parker Hannifin, maker of the vacuum pumps that didn't fail, went to trial. The Carnahans' attorney asked the jury to consider awarding the family $100 million.

After a trial of more than two months, and three days of deliberations, the jury on a 9-3 vote awarded $4 million in compensatory damages to the family. There were no punitive awards. Some of the settlements from the other companies are included in the total, so Parker Hannifin's share is about $2.8 million.

After the verdict, a Parker Hannifin spokesman was satisfied. "We came here not for money but to vindicate Parker's good name, and we feel that's been accomplished with this verdict."

The governor's widow, Jean Carnahan, was also satisfied. "Justice was served today," she said. "My son was found not responsible for the death of my husband."

During the trial, the Carnahans' attorneys brought in evidence that they said showed that failure of Parker Hannifin vacuum pumps had contributed to 20 accidents. After the trial, Mrs. Carnahan was quoted as saying, "We hope the FAA will follow the lead of this jury, which found the vacuum pumps were unsafe and were killing people. I want the killing to stop."

It may be true that Parker Hannifin's pumps have contributed to accidents, but not in this case. In this case, clever attorneys hoodwinked uninformed jurors into believing the vacuum pumps contributed to this accident, and now we're all victims.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.