$60M sought in business jet accident
The most disruptive accident at the Santa Barbara airport in decades has spurred a $60 million civil lawsuit between the parent company of one of the Tri-Counties’ biggest private companies and a French maker of corporate jets.
The accident took place June 10, 2007, when a 13-passenger Dassault Mystere Falcon 900 ran off the main runway at the Santa Barbara airport, snapping the front landing gear and coming to rest in the dirt nearly 600 feet away. The crash closed down the runway for six hours on a Sunday evening, forcing the cancellation of several commuter flights to the region’s busiest airport.
The Falcon jet is part of the business empire of Stephen Sorensen, chairman and chief executive officer of Santa Barbara-based Select Staffing, the third-largest private company in the region. The jet is owned by Santa Barbara-based Trishan Air and was being leased to Select’s parent company, Koosharem Corp., one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The plane was fully loaded with fuel and passengers for a cross-country business trip to Tampa, Fla. Select confirmed that company President Paul Sorenson was on the plane but said that his brother Stephen was not.
Details about the two-year-old incident are now emerging in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles. Koosharem alleges that Dassault Falcon Jet Corp., the plane’s manufacturer, published misleading and inaccurate information in its flight manuals that caused the jet’s pilots to make incorrect settings that led to the crash.
The lawsuit alleges that the accident caused $9 million in damage to the $20 million jet and diminished its value to only $5 million unless serious repairs are made. Koosharem is also seeking, among other damages, $6 million for lease costs and the loss of use of the plane.
At issue is what’s called rotational velocity – the speed the plane must be going for the nose to lift off when the pilot pulls back on the yoke – and a setting called pitch stabilizer trim, which helps determine how far up or down the plane’s nose points.
For the speed and weight of the plane, the trim setting should have been about negative 7 degrees, but the pilots had it set to negative 5.5 degrees, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s crash report.
The result was that when pilot Scott Michael tried twice to pull up on the yoke, nothing happened. Going nearly 150 mph and fast running out of pavement, Michael made a snap decision to slam the brakes.
“It did not even try to lift off,” the pilot told federal investigators after the crash.
“[W]hen it was apparent the airplane was not going to stop on the runway, the captain called for everyone to brace themselves,” Dennis Piermarini, the co-pilot, told federal investigators.
Koosharem argues that Michael had the stabilizer trim set where he had been taught to by the plane’s flight manuals and training provided by Flight Safety International, a company that had an agreement with St. Cloud, France-based Dassault to provide training for its aircraft. The trim was set within a “green band” along the adjustment wheel that should have made the plane lift when Michael pulled up on the yoke at the prescribed takeoff speed.
“He had been told that if he set pitch stabilizer trim setting anywhere in the green band, he’d be fine,” said Louis Franecke, the attorney representing Koosharem in the case and a pilot himself.
Andrew Ponzoni, senior manager of communications for Dassault Falcon Jet, said he couldn’t comment on specifics of the lawsuit. “We’re vigorously defending the case,” he said. “We’re confident in both our product and the merit of our positions.”
After the crash, federal investigators ran tests in the simulators that the pilots had trained on. They found that, given the plane’s speed and stabilizer trim setting, Michael would have had to hold down on the yoke for as long as four seconds before the plane would begin to lift off.
In its report, the National Transportation Safety Board said that aviation regulators in the United Kingdom had noticed the anomaly with the Falcon 900 during fully-loaded take offs and required a chart in the jet’s flight manual to give more specific instruction about where the trim stabilizer should be set.
But the U.S. version of the manual didn’t include that chart when the pilots flying the jet for Koosharem got their training. The federal crash report said that had the U.K. chart been included, the pilots would have known the correct setting given the plane’s weight and center-of-gravity location.
Koosharem is also seeking $50 million in punitive damages, alleging that Dassault knowingly failed to provide the pilots the information they needed for a safe heavyweight takeoff.
“Because it’s such a dangerous safety-of-flight issue, it’s inconceivable that Dassault didn’t know” about the stabilizer trim setting anomaly, Franecke said, summing up Koosharem’s allegation. “If they knowingly withheld the information, that could amount to punitive damages.”
Karen Ramsdell, airport director for the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, said the accident was the most serious one the facility has had in about 20 years. The runway shut down from about 2 p.m. to about 8 p.m. because the jet came to rest in the safety area beyond the pavement, which could have caused problems if another incident happened.
Ramsdell said the accident could have been much worse if airport officials had not just finished rerouting a creek that ran about 300 feet from the runway. The water had been diverted to about 1,000 feet from the runway to comply with federal rules.
“When the pilot got out, he just said, ‘I’m so glad you guys moved that creek,’” Ramsdell said. “I would have had to think that there would have been some serious injuries or fatalities had it gone into the creek, especially at that speed.”