Jury faults tower controllers in banner tow crash

July 17, 2013

While the NTSB found pilot Pedro Amieiro’s failure to maintain adequate airspeed was the probable cause of his near-fatal 2007 crash, a Florida jury assigned most of the blame—68 percent of it—to tower controllers who directed Amieiro to execute an S-turn to land in a tightly confined space.

Judge Jack Tuter has yet to finalize the disposition of the $100 million verdict, and the defendant—a contract tower operator—is likely to appeal. The jury was instructed not to adjust its monetary awards based on the apportionment of blame; that will be left to the court.

According to NTSB data, Amieiro was a 25-year-old commercial pilot with 450 hours logged, including 130 hours in the modified Piper Pawnee he was flying, N131AB,  as he approached North Perry Airport in Hollywood, Fla., from the south on Nov. 10, 2007. The airport has a four runways, two running north-south and two east-west, forming a quadrangle in which investigators would find the wreckage of the low-wing crop duster that had just dropped an advertising banner. According to court documents and attorneys representing Amieiro’s brother, who sued Robinson Aviation Inc., the contract tower operator, and Aerial Banners, the banner tow operator, in 2008, the controller who issued Amieiro’s landing clearance failed to follow an agreement with the FAA regarding traffic patterns at the airport. Rather than instructing the pilot to follow a standard pattern after dropping his banner at the northwest corner of the airport, west of Runway 36L, the tower directed Amieiro to make an S-turn between the runways, starting with a 180-degree turn to the right to cross Runway 36L and fly between the parallels, followed by another 180 degree turn to the left to land on Runway 36R.

As Amieiro began the second turn, witnesses told the NTSB, the Pawnee pitched down suddenly and slammed into the ground. Amieiro survived, but suffered significant and permanent brain injury, according to court documents. He will require lifelong assistance, according to a statement from his legal team.

According to the NTSB investigation reports, the centerlines of each set of parallel runways are separated by 1,450 feet, requiring tight turns with about 45 degrees of bank to maneuver as Amieiro was directed. The NTSB calculated the straight-and-level stall speed of the aircraft a 67 mph (with no flaps), increasing to 80 mph with the wings banked 45 degrees. Investigators found the stall warning horn was inoperative at the time of the crash, and the airspeed indicator was out of calibration, indicating speeds higher than actual. A counter-claim by Robinson Aviation against Aerial Banners was dismissed in 2010, and the jury assigned no blame to the aircraft operator that employed Amieiro at the time of the crash.

Miami attorney Monica Irel, who represented Robinson Aviation, did not respond to a telephone message or email from AOPA online seeking comment on this story.

Attorney Todd S. Payne, who is also a pilot and was hired to assist the plaintiff’s team, said the defense case boiled down to the principle mandated by federal regulations that a pilot in command is solely responsible for the safe operation of an aircraft.

“Their fall back is, well, if he didn’t like it [the clearance], he could have rejected it,” Payne said. “That’s just not reality.”

Payne said the plaintiffs argued at trial that ATC and pilots act as partners, and must work together. The jury, in its June 13 verdict, agreed that while Amieiro bears some of the responsibility (32 percent, to be exact) for accepting the landing clearance and failing to execute it safely, the tower staff bears a greater degree of responsibility.

The plaintiffs argued during a two-week trial that the air traffic controller (only one was present in the tower at the time of the crash, Payne said, though the letter of agreement with the FAA required a staff of two) could easily have directed Amieiro to make a standard traffic pattern after dropping his banner, since there was no other traffic in the vicinity at the time. (The NTSB reports contain no details about other aircraft operations in the vicinity.)

According to NTSB reports, witnesses told investigators that Amieiro had completed a similar maneuver once in the days leading up to the crash. The right-left pattern is tricky at best, requiring the completion of two 180-degree turns within a confined space—Runway 36L and Runway 36R are separated by 1,450 feet, according to the NTSB reports, with 2,000 feet separating the Runway 36R centerline and the banner drop zone, where Amieiro flew low and slow to release his tow. A turn with 30 degrees of bank at 70 mph would require 1,140 of the 2,000 feet available between the banner drop zone and the centerline of Runway 36R, where Amieiro was directed to land, NTSB investigators calculated, and two such turns were required to complete the landing according to the clearance issued. At 80 mph, each 180-degree turn would consume 1,500 feet of the lateral distance with 30 degrees of bank, or 900 feet with 45 degrees of bank.

“Why in the world would these guys give such a convoluted, complicated, unnecessarily difficult clearance?” Payne said, noting that ATC, in essence, directed Amieiro to perform low-level aerobatics rather than simply crossing both runways to make normal right traffic, or flying a standard left pattern for runway 36L after dropping the banner. (The drop zone is located a few hundred feet left of the upwind leg of a left pattern for that runway.)

The tower was itself an obstacle for Amieiro to negotiate, located at the south end of the field, standing 84 feet high, according to the airport diagram. Payne said the controller who was present never saw the crash, though it was in plain view in the middle of the airport.

“The jury recognized that the pilot has to take some responsibility flying the airplane,” Payne said. “They rejected wholesale the notion that ATC can tell you to do anything in their controlled airspace and literally and figuratively turn their back.”

Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.