The following information may be helpful to those interested in the legal and safety issues related to the March 22, 2009 crash of a Pilatus PC-12 in Butte, Montana.
The airplane that crashed was a single-engine turboprop manufactured in Switzerland by Pilatus Aircraft, Ltd. It was registered to Eagle Cap Leasing, Inc. located in Enterprise, Oregon. Although the precise cause of the crash is not yet known, the NTSB's recently released Preliminary Report confirms the possibility of several causes that have been the focus of our investigation.
The flight's original destination was Bozeman, Montana, but the aircraft diverted to Butte, Montana while en route. Investigators do not yet know why the diversion was made, but are exploring several possibilities, including weather-related issues and mechanical problems. The Preliminary Report, however, makes clear that the weather at Bozeman should not have been a concern. Furthermore, the post-impact fire seems to confirm that insufficient fuel to reach Bozeman was also not an issue. While mechanical failure remains a reason for the diversion, pilots at Kreindler & Kreindler LLP believe that it would be highly unusual to request a diversion for mechanical reasons without stating so to Air Traffic Control.
The PC-12 crashed into a cemetery approximately 500 feet from the centerline of the runway it was trying to land on with its flaps, which are normally lowered for landing, still in the up position. Eyewitnesses stated that the airplane appeared too high to land on the runway and that the plane jerked sharply to the left and then "nose dived" into the ground... According to reports, the crew did not make any distress calls. These observations are consistent with a stall while maneuvering to land. A stall occurs when the aircraft is flying too slow such that the wings are no longer able to produce the necessary lift to maintain flight and the aircraft suddenly and rapidly loses altitude. The pilot may have been trying to maneuver the plane for landing and let the plane's speed get too slow resulting in the sudden, uncontrolled stall. If true, such a stall could have been caused by aircraft design issues, icing or other stall inducing factors, such as weight and the distribution of weight in the aircraft.
The PC-12 is known to have unusual and potentially dangerous stall characteristics. So much so, in fact, that when Pilatus Aircraft, Ltd. first sought to certify the aircraft for sale and use within the United States, the FAA required the incorporation of a "stick-pusher" system to help make the plane safer. The stick-pusher is designed to warn pilots of impending stalls and automatically lowers the nose of the aircraft when stall conditions are detected to increase the lift produced by the wings and keep the plane flying. The PC-12's stick-shaker and stick -pusher system may be implicated here for failing to prevent an aircraft stall. Within the past two years, the stick-pusher system has been the subject of two safety-related Airworthiness Directives issued by the FAA. In addition, Kreindler & Kreindler LLP is prosecuting a civil action against Pilatus for the crash of a PC-12 on March 26, 2005 in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania where it is claimed that the stick-pusher system failed to prevent a deadly stall.
The NTSB chairman recently identified similarities between the Butte, Montana crash and the crash of a Pilatus PC-12 aircraft in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Kreindler & Kreindler represents the family of one of the victims of that crash in lawsuits pending in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Based upon our continuing investigation, Kreindler & Kreindler believes that the Bellefonte crash was caused by a defectively designed stick pusher system that failed to meet FAA airworthiness requirements.
The Preliminary Report also stated that there was a cloud layer at 8000 feet which may mean that the aircraft may have passed through an area that was conducive to ice formation on the plane's wings and tail surfaces. In flight icing is dangerous for two reasons. First, when ice forms on an aircraft, it increases the plane's overall weight. Second, as ice builds up on wings and tail surfaces, it changes the way that air flows across these surfaces. The added weight and altered airflow combine to change the fundamental flight characteristics of the aircraft. In such situations, ice formation can result in the plane stalling at a higher airspeed than normal and the pilot has no way of knowing what that new stall speed is. For this reason, icing can result in sudden, uncontrollable stalls, especially when an aircraft is slowing for the approach.
The PC-12 aircraft is equipped with de-icing boots designed to inflate and deflate periodically to prevent ice from accumulating on the leading edges of the wings and tail, but this technology does not prevent ice from building up in other critical areas, including immediately behind the de-icing boots. If icing is determined to have contributed to the crash, the design and operation of the de-icing system will have to be closely scrutinized.
Investigators have also focused on icing as a possible cause of the recent crash in Buffalo, New York of Continental Connection Flight 3407. The aircraft in that crash was a Bombardier Dash 8-Q400 twin-engine turboprop, which utilizes a de-icing system similar to the Pilatus PC-12. Kreindler & Kreindler has been retained by the families of seven victims of the Buffalo crash.
Aircraft overloading is another scenario that could explain a stall an is being closely examined by investigators. The PC-12 has the capacity to hold up to ten passengers and has a maximum landing weight of about 9,900 pounds. Although there were fourteen persons aboard the airplane, seven of them were children between the ages of one and nine years old. Investigators have not identified overloading as a contributing factor, but passenger and luggage weights, as well as the weight of the fuel on board, must be determined to provide a complete assessment.
Families of the victims of the Butte, Montana crash should not feel pressured into taking legal action. The victims' families may be contacted by attorneys or individuals working for attorneys over the coming weeks. The families should know that individual State ethics laws, which govern attorney conduct, may prohibit such solicitation of family members. It is important for victims to take their time and consult with attorneys who are experienced in the area of Aviation Accident Law.
If you have any questions or would like further information about the investigation of the Butte, Montana crash, please feel free to contact any of the following partners.