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Unfit for Flight: Pilots blamed for fatal crashes in aircraft that had mechanical flaws

Unfit for Flight: Pilots blamed for fatal crashes in aircraft that had mechanical flaws
Unfit for Flight: Pilots blamed for fatal crashes in aircraft that had mechanical flaws

FREDERICKSBURG -- Aircraft manufacturers have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements to victims in fatal general aviation crashes, despite the NTSB blaming pilots for these accidents.

The joint investigation between USA Today and the I-Team calls into question whether the NTSB is doing a thorough job of investigating small plane and helicopter crashes.

USA Today: Safety last: Lies and coverups mask roots of small-plane carnage

Among the notable examples of this decades-long trend, a fatal helicopter crash in Fredericksburg on April 13, 2006.

Pilot Craig Nemec and two of his three passengers died after his Robinson R44 helicopter collided with a power line shortly after taking off.

One passenger died at the scene, another passed away a day later after being airlifted to SAMMC's burn unit.

A third passenger survived with burns to his face and hands.

Craig suffered burns on more than 50 percent of his body and died after a courageous 15-month fight against complications from those burns.

"He asked to renew our vows, we did, and we talked about, you know, its going to be really hard," said Craig's widow Ellen Nemec.

The NTSB's initial report and final report cited Craig's failure to avoid the power line and his failure to follow recommended departure procedures at the Gillespie County Airport as the primary causes of the crash.

However, the power line was not marked and a lawsuit filed by Ellen Nemec in 2008 revealed the helicopter was destroyed because of a devastating fire caused by fuel leaking from the helicopter's tanks.

"Their determination of probable cause looked at why the helicopter hit the ground. The NTSB didn't bother to examine why everybody got horribly injured," said attorney Michael Slack, who represented the Nemec family in its lawsuit against Robinson Helicopter Company.

Slack described the April 2006 accident as a "hard landing" that turned catastrophic because the R44's fuel tanks ruptured, spilling fuel into the cockpit and causing a devastating fire.

The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2009, for what Slack described as an "undisclosed amount of money."

As part of the settlement, Slack was allowed to visit Robinson's Torrance, California headquarters as the company began to install improved fuel tank systems in its older helicopters and all of its new helicopters.

"We wanted them mandatory and we wanted them worldwide," said Slack about Robinson's safer bladder-type tanks.

While the bladder tanks are now standard, many older Robinson helicopters still have older tanks.

"What they didn't do is make the fix available overseas," said Ellen Nemec, adding that the improvements are paid for by Robinson customers, not the company, and helicopters must be brought to California.

Former NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, who left the agency in May, acknowledged during a recent interview with USA Today the NTSB needs to do a better job of investigating small aircraft crashes.

Hersman noted the average investigator is tasked with probing 30-40 crashes a year.

"If the investigator says the pilot's responsible, the board doesn't have any other information with which to determine probable cause," added Slack.

Its a common, costly trend.

The I-Team found 21 verdicts totaling close to $1 billion, against aircraft manufacturers the NTSB had not cited in its investigation of these crashes.

"If the helicopter company hadn't just been thinking about their bottom line, if the government agencies had paid attention, Craig would be here, the other families in our accident would be here and a lot of other people around the world," Ellen Nemec said.

Robinson Helicopter president Kurt Robinson spoke with USA Today for this story.

He noted that the FAA had approved all models of Robinson Helicopters, including the R44, but acknowledged the company moved to improve its fuel tank systems following the Fredericksburg crash.

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