Father of Navy veteran killed while taking commercial pilot exam sues Piper Aircraft
By FRANK FERNANDEZ | The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. | Published: March 15, 2019
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — The family of an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University student killed in a plane crash along with a federal examiner last year when a wing detached from the airplane is suing Piper Aircraft alleging it knew of structural failures in that model since 1987 but failed to warn pilots and owners, or require testing that could have saved lives.
Zack Capra, a 25-year-old Navy veteran who was taking his commercial pilot license exam, and Federal Aviation Administration pilot examiner John S. Azma, a father of four, were killed on April 4, 2018, when the left wing came off the Piper PA-28 as they flew west of Daytona Beach International Airport.
An ERAU spokeswoman said last week that the university has stopped flying the Piper PA-28.
In the April crash, the plane had climbed to 900 feet when radar contact was lost. It crashed in a cow pasture along Tomoka Farms Road near the Daytona Flea & Farmer's Market.
"The horror and fear of impending death for pilots from an in-flight breakup of their aircraft cannot be overstated as it is a pilot's worst nightmare come true," according to the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Capra's father, John Charles Capra, who is administrator of his son's estate.
John Capra had posted on his Facebook page recent tattoos in honor of his son. One showed an eagle with a scroll with the words "Tailwinds of hope." The other tattoo was a drawing of the blue and white Piper his son was flying compete with its registration, N106ER. Above the plane were the letters "RIP ZMC JSA" and below it were a latitude and longitude.
Investigators found cracks consistent with metal fatigue beginning at or near an attachment bolt hole on the left wing spar, a metal piece that bears the load of the wing, according to the National Transportation Safety Board's preliminary report. The right wing also had fatigue cracks at the same location.
After the crash the investigators found another Piper PA-28 at the university with a similar crack to the one in the deadly crash. The second plane had just over 7,600 hours of flight time. FAA records showed the plane was registered to the university. The college grounded its fleet of about a half-dozen Piper PA-28s.
Jacqueline Carlon, spokeswoman for Vero Beach-based Piper, said the company had just received the lawsuit and declined to comment when reached on Wednesday.
"This is a pending lawsuit, we can't respond," Carlon adding it would be addressed the "normal litigation channels."
The Piper in the deadly crash had been built in 2007 and also had more than 7,600 hours. It was used exclusively for flight training and had undergone its annual inspection on March 21, 2018, two weeks before the crash.
The Piper was being used in a demanding training environment in Florida which is known for rapid development of cumulus clouds that can create turbulence for planes, the lawsuit states, which makes inspections of the planes all the more important.
The Piper had endured "no less than seven separate 'hard landing' reports," each requiring a Piper-specified inspection, the lawsuit states, and each time the plane was inspected.
But the types of inspections needed to detect the crack in the Piper's wing spar were not done. Such tests were not required despite Piper knowing about the flaw, said Arthur Alan Wolk, of the Wolk Law Firm in Philadelphia which specializes in representing plaintiffs in aircraft crashes, in a phone interview. Wolk is the lead attorney in the case while Jeffrey Bigman is the local counsel.
He said Piper models PA-32, a single-engine type like the PA-28, and the PA-34, a twin-engine, also have similar problems.
Wolk said that the problem was identified in 1987 but Piper asked the FAA to withdraw an airworthiness directive requiring an inspection to detect the problem without fixing the flaw in the plane.
"Well, if nobody does the inspection then nobody finds the problem," Wolk said. "If nobody finds the problem then somebody else is going to die."
He added that there were several non-destructive tests that Piper could have required to catch the problem before a wing fell off and pilots and passengers got killed.
"For years prior to 1987, Piper knew that more than a hundred PA-28 aircraft had suffered in-flight structural failures resulting in the loss of life of hundreds of occupants," according to the lawsuit.
Piper spokeswoman Carlon declined also to respond to the allegations that hundreds had died.
Wolk said that the NTSB and Piper about two weeks ago again inspected the wreckage of the Piper in the ERAU crash. He said he hopes that will lead to a new FAA directive to address the problem.
The FAA in December published in the federal registry a notice about a proposed air worthiness directive for inspections of the main wing spar on some Piper models "to address the unsafe condition on these products."
The deadline for comments was last month and the FAA is reviewing them to determine the next step, wrote FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. The inspections would be based on service hours and cover PA-28 and PA-32 aircraft.
The lawsuit accuses Piper of negligence, fraudulent misrepresentation, fraudulent concealment, negligent failure to warn and other violations. The company lobbied the FAA to withdraw the directive for expensive inspections of the plane, the lawsuit states.
By doing so, Piper ignored continuing in-flight failures and "it decided unilaterally that some people would have to die if the inspections were not made especially in high time aircraft operated in harsh environments," the lawsuit states.
Piper was aware of the crash in 1987 in which the wing fell of a plane doing pipeline patrol, killing the pilot, the lawsuit states. That crash was caused by a crack emanating from a bolt in the wing attachment fitting in a plane with about 7,500 flight hours, the lawsuit stated.
The FAA then issued an air worthiness directive for the planes based on conditions which could likely result in structural failure and death.
Inspections were conducted on 500 Piper aircraft and the cracks were found on two additional planes. Afterward, Piper lobbied the FAA to withdraw its directive which the FAA did, the lawsuit states. Piper also withdrew its own service bulletin.
The lawsuit accuses Piper of knowing pilots were being killed due to problems with the plane.
The lawsuit said the fatigue crack in the crash of the ERAU PA-28, also known as Piper Arrows, emanated from the same bolt and location as in the 1987 crash.
The lawsuit accuses Piper of "hiding the truth behind wing failures in the PA-28 aircraft" from pilots, owners and operators by requiring confidentiality in litigation. It also accuses the company of violating the public trust by being dishonest about the structural integrity of its aircraft.
Had the appropriate effective inspections been recommended by Piper and followed the crack would have been located and he wing repaired and replaced, the lawsuit states.
ERAU spokeswoman Ginger Pinholster said the college no longer flies the Pipers.
The Pipers were used because they were considered "complex" type aircraft to train on retractable landing gear. But three weeks after the crash, the FAA said pilots need not need to fly a complex type plane for their initial commercial pilot's license.
"Last year, the FAA changed its pilot certification standards, which had previously required flight students to work with two particular classes of aircraft. The FAA rule change to the commercial pilot airman certification standards allowed us to remove the "complex" type of aircraft from our curriculum and streamline our overall fleet," she wrote.
The FAA notice dated April 24, 2018, does not refer to the crash but it states that requiring a complex type aircraft, a class that includes retractable landing gears and other features, had become cost prohibitive for flight schools.
ERAU has 82 aircraft at its campuses in Daytona Beach and Arizona with 66 of those planes being Cessnas. The other planes are Diamonds and American Champion Decathlons.
Pinholster said there are no Piper aircraft in the fleet.
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