Durham County

Families file lawsuits in fatal September crash of Duke Life Flight helicopter

Last call for Life Flight Three

Mourners from across the region attended a memorial service at Duke Chapel on Wednesday Sept. 20, 2017, for the patient and crew members who lost their lives in a helicopter crash on Sept. 8th.
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Mourners from across the region attended a memorial service at Duke Chapel on Wednesday Sept. 20, 2017, for the patient and crew members who lost their lives in a helicopter crash on Sept. 8th.

Lawsuits filed Monday in Durham County Superior Court are seeking damages in the Duke Life Flight helicopter crash that killed four people in September.

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of the families of flight nurse Kristopher Harrison and the patient on board the fatal flight, Mary Susan White Bartlett, according to attorney Gary Robb, an aviation lawyer in Kansas City, Missouri, who’s representing them.

The helicopter’s pilot, Jeffrey Burke, and flight nurse Crystal Sollinger also were killed in the Sept. 8 crash in Hertford, North Carolina. All four were remembered in a Sept. 20 memorial service at Duke Chapel.

A Duke University Health System helicopter crashed Sept. 8, 2017, killing four people in Perquimans County in eastern North Carolina. The crash occurred around 11:45 a.m. The helicopter was returning to Duke from the Sentara Albemarle Medical Cent

The Bartlett and Harrison families are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from Safran Helicopter Engines, a French corporation that manufactured the engines of the downed helicopter; its U.S. distributor, Safran USA, Inc.; the aircraft manufacturer, Airbus Helicopters Deutschland GmbH, a German entity; and its U.S. distributor, Airbus Helicopters Inc.

The lawsuits further name as defendants Burke’s estate and the Air Methods Corp., the Colorado-based contractor the Duke University Health System hired to operate the aerial component of the Life Flight program. Air Methods provides the pilots and mechanics. The cases didn’t ask to levy punitive damages on either the Burke estate or Air Methods.

Crash witnesses reported seeing smoke trailing from the rear of the helicopter before it crashed. National Transportation Safety Board investigators said in their preliminary report that the No. 2 engine’s rear turbine shaft showed signs of “overheating and lack of lubrication” and that a key bearing was “worn down to the surface of the bearing race.”

The lawsuits contend the crash could have been prevented and was linked to a January incident in which a pilot of the same model helicopter performed a successful emergency landing in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The pilot in the Sioux Falls case “followed the emergency maneuver procedure that you’re supposed to follow if you lose an engine in a twin-engine helicopter,” whereas Buke was “unable to do that,” said Robb, alluding to an NTSB report that said one eyewitness had reported the Duke helicopter was hovering just before it went down.

Robb said helicopter pilots are supposed to maintain or even increase airspeed if they can in such an emergency because forward momentum gives them more options for landing and keeps smoke from choking the good engine.

But “hear me clearly: The engine failure put this pilot in that position.” he said.

‘A hissing sound’

The pilot in the Sioux Falls incident saw caution and warning lights go off, heard a “hissing sound” and smelled exhaust fumes in the cabin, and finally saw an “orange glow” coming from the rear of his Eurocopter EC145. He activated its engine-compartment fire extinguishers and put the craft down on an airport runway, NTSB investigators said in their preliminary report on that incident.

As with the Duke Life Flight crash, the final results of the NTSB investigation are still pending. But on Nov. 16, the Federal Aviation Administration officially linked the two cases via a “special airworthiness information bulletin” that urged the owners and operators of the Eurocopter EC145 to do some extra checks of its engine compartment to look for a blocked oil drain line.

The FAA said the request is “not mandatory,” but follows January’s Sioux Falls incident and September’s Duke Life Flight crash. The Sioux Falls incident “could be related to engine oil coke chips” plugging the drain for a bearing in the front portion of the engine, it said.

One EC145 operator has spotted “a separate, airframe-related issue” and “various levels of coking blockage of engine drain lines,” the FAA said, without making it clear whether that find occurred in the course of either of the two ongoing NTSB investigations or involved a third incident.

The FAA asked EC145 operators to do the extra checks after every 100 hours of flight time, and report any blockages they find to an agency engineer based in Texas. A bulletin like the Nov. 16 one stops short of being the sort of “airworthiness directive” that mandates special repairs or other maintenance work.

Even now, in the aircraft’s normal maintenance procedures there “are no prescribed inspections ” of the relevant drain tube to look for blockages, the FAA request said, adding that Airbus Helicopters normally specifies “a general visual inspection of the bearing compartment area.”

The lawyers’ listing of defendants notably omitted Duke University and the Duke University Medical System.

Robb, who trained in law at the University of Michigan, indicated that the lawsuits are proceeding on the assumption that “a blocked engine drain line” triggered September’s fatal Life Flight crash.

“That blockage will lead to an engine fire and then complete shutdown of that engine,” he said. “We believe that is exactly what happened in this crash.”

The FAA bulletin wasn’t as strongly worded, saying only that a block drain line can “present a risk for an engine fire” or in-flight engine shutdown “under certain circumstances.” It did not elaborate on what those might be.

Robb said he thinks it’s “highly significant and unusual” that the FAA would weigh in ahead of NTSB action, and he accused Safran and Airbus Helicopters of having “sat on their hands” after the Sioux Falls incident.

‘Not uncommon’

The Bartlett and Harrison families claim Burke was negligent for failing to “perform proper emergency procedures” when the engine failed, failing to keep the craft moving forward, failing to maintain control and failing to perform a “proper and safe autorotation landing.” An autorotation is an emergency landing maneuver that can sometimes save a crippled helicopter.

The Burke family also has a lawyer, Harvard-trained aviation-law specialist Joseph Anderson. On Tuesday he more or less declined to comment.

“In these helicopter-crash cases it’s not uncommon for the pilot to initially be a defendant,” Anderson said. “But what happens ultimately remains to be seen.”

The lawsuits make essentially the same pilot-negligence claim against Air Methods, and further allege that the company’s mechanics “supplied a non-airworthy helicopter.”

Robb acknowledged that Air Methods and its mechanics couldn’t have known in August or September that the FAA would issue a special bulletin about the EC145’s drain line in November. Their role and actions remain “an issue we need to look at” in the coming months as the sides begin swapping information about the case, he said.

He added that his clients didn’t ask for punitive damages from Air Methods and the Burke estate because “at the present time there are no known facts to support” punishing them.

The engine and airframe manufacturers stand accused by the two families of supplying unsafe equipment. They believe Airbus Helicopters could have done more to warn operators after the Sioux Falls incident, and that Safran, the engine-maker, “used a defective and unreasonably dangerous design.”

Sollinger’s family has also hired a lawyer, Jim Crouse, a Raleigh-based, Duke-trained aviation-law specialist.

Crouse said the Bartlett/Harrison filing’s approach wasn’t surprising, though he stressed “it’s still early in the case” to say what caused the crash or who’s at fault. He added that NTSB investigators have yet to release the helicopter’s wreckage to Duke, the craft’s owner. That implies investigators are still studying it, or at least want to keep it handy.

Given the post-crash timing of the FAA move to issue its bulletin, there are a lot of questions still to answer about what the manufacturers and Air Methods knew and when they knew it, he said. The bulletin itself raises questions about whether the blockage issue is an engine or airframe problem.

Meanwhile, Burke’s actions “remain a subject of interest because we still don’t know if the aircraft was flyable after whatever mechanical problems occurred,” or if on the other hand it was so quickly and severely damaged that an autorotation or other type of emergency landing wasn’t even possible, Crouse said.

What is clear, however, is that the lawsuits could be the first of several, as the families, Air Methods, the manufacturers and Duke all could see a reason to go to court to sort out the question of liability, Crouse said.

Because of where Air Methods and the manufacturers are based, state courts in Colorado and Texas may wind up being involved, and someone could also try to move things to federal court.

A tribute to the four individuals lost in the Sept. 8, 2017 Duke Life Flight crash, featuring an address from Duke University Hospital President Kevin Sowers, a Sept. 20 flyover tribute at Duke Chapel, and notes from a memorial near the Life Fligh

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb