The technology revolution in general aviation is transforming aviation litigation. In many cases, speculative claims have been supplanted by highly detailed data about aircraft involved in accidents, how pilots flew those aircraft and the events leading up to an accident.
Aviation lawyers must be familiar with technological advances and trends and how such technology might cause or reveal the causes of accidents. Likewise, aviation attorneys must have access to expert witnesses capable of accurately translating data from a variety of devices and technologies and incorporating it into an accident investigation.
Aviation is commonly divided into four segments: airlines, military, public use and general aviation (GA), which is all other aviation. GA encompasses a wide variety of activities, including flight training; business aviation; nonscheduled charter, personal and pleasure flying; package delivery; agricultural aviation; medical evacuation and much more.
While around 500 airports in the United States have airline service, more than 5,500 airports in the country are available to GA. For most communities, GA provides the sole means of access to the national air transportation system.
While airline accidents spawn a host of lawsuits, they occur relatively rarely. They frequently are subject to international treaties, which mandate liability and damages. GA accidents, on the other hand, often require litigation of causation and damages, applying appropriate state law standards. Technological advances in GA are transforming the face of aviation litigation.
The military developed the global positioning system (GPS) as a precise means of navigating without reliance on ground-based transmitters. Instead, GPS relies on computer analysis of signals received from satellites orbiting the Earth to compute location.
While GPS has proliferated into a wide variety of consumer electronics, aviation was among the first civilian industries to capitalize on GPS. GPS has revolutionized aviation, mitigating common risks, such as becoming lost, and collisions with rising terrain and obstacles. GPS has also given the world of GA to precision instrument approaches in poor visibility at many airports where such approaches had never before been available.
Weather-related issues remain a leading cause of aviation accidents. Satellite delivery of near-real time weather information, including the National Weather Service’s Next-Generation Radar (NEXRAD) weather imagery, has proven almost as revolutionary to GA as GPS.
GA pilots previously relied on pre-flight weather briefings to avoid adverse weather, supplemented by in-flight conversations with weather personnel and onboard weather radar in more sophisticated aircraft. But now, XM and Sirius satellites can transmit weather data directly into the cockpits of GA aircraft in flight. This is important for lawyers for a number of reasons.
While such near-real-time information has enabled many GA pilots to mitigate and avoid weather hazards, paradoxically, some pilots have become less risk averse when armed with onboard weather information. The National Transportation Safety Board recently issued a warning to pilots, reminding them of the delay between transmission of NEXRAD signals and the actual weather events depicted.
A false sense of safety is dangerous. Fast-developing thunderstorms can intensify more rapidly than transmitted NEXRAD images can depict. Additionally, various types of weather imagery may only display one facet of developing weather, such as precipitation or lightning, and cannot fully capture the intensity of the weather an aircraft may encounter.
A New Record
Historically, only airliners and large business jets were equipped with flight data recorders, leaving accident investigators and aviation lawyers to rely more on circumstantial evidence to search for causes of a GA accident. New technologies have brought detailed and accurate data recording to virtually all levels of GA.
Aviation GPS receivers typically record details of flights in memory, which can be used to reconstruct many aspects of an accident flight. Handheld GPS units, both those built for aviation and those based on popular tablet computers, frequently retain recoverable data, even if the unit itself is destroyed in an accident.
Computer displays increasingly have supplanted the typical aircraft cockpit full of round instruments. These so-called glass cockpits provide pilots with the information necessary to fly. While such displays initially were found only outside general aviation, antiskid and antilock braking technology developed for the auto industry led avionics manufacturers to develop small, inexpensive and very accurate altitude heading reference systems (AHRS), which constantly detect an airplane’s attitude, acceleration and movement.
AHRS allows glass cockpits to display basic information necessary to control an airplane without outside visual references (helpful when flying in clouds or at night). AHRS has the added benefit of not relying on heavy mechanical gyroscopes powered by pneumatic suction pumps. Even more than portable devices, glass cockpits, driven by AHRS, record a wealth of information about every aspect of an airplane’s performance on a continual basis.
Advances — in measuring, monitoring and recording performance and trends of jet, turboprop and piston aircraft engines — assist pilots in flight. Mechanics who are performing routine inspections and diagnosing anomalies can use such technologies in ways unimaginable just a few decades ago. Engine monitoring data can be vital in investigating and litigating aircraft accidents in which engine failures played a role.
Armed with data from these devices and technologies and experts who know how to use it, aviation lawyers now can present juries with highly detailed, compelling depictions of how an airplane crashed.
Conversely, aviation lawyers must have in-depth knowledge of such technologies to catch an opposing lawyer or expert drawing an erroneous conclusion from available data, ignoring one cause to focus on another, or even massaging data to persuade a jury to believe a conclusion not actually supported by the available data at all.