Effect of Supreme Court Ruling on Aircraft Manufacturers?

On February 20, the US Supreme Court issued an opinion in Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc. that "bars common-law claims challenging the safety or effectiveness of a medical device marketed in a form that received premarket approval from the FDA." The case focused on the "pre-emption" clause of the Medical Device Amendments of 1976, 21 U. S. C. §360k.

I’m not an attorney, but I wonder what, if any, implications this ruling may have for manufacturers of other devices that are subject to approval by federal agencies, such as the FAA. Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc. clearly turns on specific language in the Medical Device Amendments act, but it seems to be part of a trend. The court will soon hear a similar case, Warner-Lambert Co. v. Kent, that involves a pharmaceutical company. According to a story in today’s NY Times:

By an 8-1 vote, the court ruled a 1976 law creating federal safety oversight for medical devices bars state-law claims challenging safety or effectiveness of devices that have won premarket approval from the Food and Drug Administration

The ruling could benefit other device makers, who have argued that the FDA’s judgment that a product is safe and effective should protect companies from being sued for liability in state court.

General aviation manufacturers and aviation associations have long complained that the makers of airframes, engines, instruments, and other aircraft components are unfairly held responsible for deaths and injuries resulting from aviation accidents even when those accidents are officially blamed on pilot error, weather, or other factors not related to the design or function of the aircraft or its parts. The industry has often cited FAA certification as evidence that aircraft and their components meet applicable and reasonable safety standards.

The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 (GARA) provided some liability protection for manufacturers of general aviation aircraft (for a brief overview, see this 2006 report by the law firm Wilson Elser). According to GARA:

…no civil action for damages for death or injury to persons or damage to property arising out of an accident involving a general aviation aircraft may be brought against the manufacturer of the aircraft or the manufacturer of any new component, system, subassembly, or other part of the aircraft, in its capacity as a manufacturer if the accident occurred—
(1) after the applicable limitation period [18 years] beginning on—
(A) the date of delivery of the aircraft to its first purchaser or lessee, if delivered directly from the manufacturer;
(B) the date of first delivery of the aircraft to a person engaged in the business of selling or leasing such aircraft;
(2) with respect to any new component, system, subassembly, or other part which replaced another component, system,
subassembly, or other part originally in, or which was added to, the aircraft, and which is alleged to have caused such
death, injury, or damage, after the applicable limitation period beginning on the date of completion of the replacement or

But GARA hasn’t stopped folks from suing anyone and everyone who might have a connection to an aircraft involved in an accident. An infamous recent case involved a multi-million-dollar verdict against Parker Hannifin, a company that manufactured FAA-certified vacuum pumps. The company’s pumps were installed in a twin-engine Cessna 335 that crashed on October 16, 2000, killing three people, including Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan. The NTSB official report listed the probable cause of the accident as, "The pilot’s failure to control the airplane while maneuvering because of spatial disorientation. Contributing to the accident were the failure of the airplane’s primary attitude indicator and the adverse weather conditions, including turbulence." But the report does not blame either of the airplane’s two vacuum pumps, both of which were working at the time of the crash. Parker Hannifin has since stopped making vacuum pumps.

It will be interesting to see if the aviation industry finds new support against similar claims in light of the decision in Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc.

Review of RAM Mounting System GPS Holder

RAM-Suction-04 Like many pilots, I bring a portable GPS along when I fly, even if the airplane has a panel-mount GPS or an integrated avionics solution like the Garmin G1000.

But the proliferation of gizmos these days makes it hard to keep everything in its place. Over the years, I’ve tried several products to hold portable devices securely and conveniently, but until recently, none has really delivered.

However, I recently bought  a RAM-B-166U Suction Cup Twist Lock Mount and RAM-HOL-GA7U from RAM Mounting Systems, Inc., and I think I’ve found the simple, flexible, and useful solution that I’ve been looking for. Read my detailed review at BruceAir.com.

Flying WAAS: The Sequel

Before I flew south for a few days of aerobatic practice over the Nevada desert, I took advantage of another good day for IFR practice in the Pacific Northwest. Today’s flight in the A36 was a round-robin excursion: KRNTKHQMKOLMKRNT, with RNAV (GPS) approaches at KHQM (RNAV Rwy 24) and KOLM (RNAV Rwy 17).


I won’t provide a detailed narrative–it was a routine flight, albeit another example of how wonderful WAAS is. But it was a pretty day in a Northwest way, and if you want to fly along virtually, you can find pictures, charts, and a GPS track file in .kmz (Google Earth) format in one of my SkyDrive folders.

To read more about flying WAAS, see my account of a similar flight on February 11.





Flying WAAS

After what seems an interminable stretch of bad weather, even by Seattle standards, a warm front moved through the Pacific Northwest today. The clouds didn’t part, but they spilled only light rain showers, and most importantly, the freezing level soared to around 6000 feet, high enough for me start up the Beechcraft A36 and log some RNAV (GPS) approaches that take advantage of the updated WAAS capabilities of the Garmin GNS530W installed in the instrument panel. Being a belt-and-suspenders guy, I brought along my portable Garmin GPSMAP 396 GPS, which can display real-time weather information beamed via XM radio signals.

(You can find more pictures and charts and a GPS track file [.kmz] from the flight that you load into Google Earth in one of my public SkyDrive folders.)





I departed about 1230 PST (2030Z) from Renton, WA (KRNT) on an IFR flight plan to Skagit/Bayview (KBVS). I was cleared to climb to 4000 and proceed via the PAE VOR near Everett, WA to KBVS. Given the reported weather at Skagit, I expected to fly the RNAV (GPS) Rwy 10 approach.

The airspace north of Seattle is a mosaic, with pieces under the jurisdiction of Seattle Approach, Seattle Center, and NAS Whidbey Island Approach. After takeoff to the south, I was vectored around to the northwest (the better to avoid conflicts with traffic using Boeing Field [KBFI] and Sea-Tac [KSEA]) and then cleared direct to an initial fix for the approach (see the blue GPS track of the entire flight overlaid on the sectional chart above).

Although the clouds were free of ice and serious rain, the famous Puget Sound Convergence Zone made its presence felt. I rode through continuous light turbulence in and occasionally between layers of dense clouds from around Everett north.


Thanks to the display on the GPSMAP 396, I knew that the weather at KBVS was well above the lowest minimums established for the approach (353 feet above the runway and 1.25 miles visibility), so I loaded the procedure into the GNS530W as soon as I was cleared to SOCLO, one of the initial fixes for the procedure.




A few miles southeast of SOCLO, the Whidbey Approach turned me loose: "Bonanza 46 Foxtrot, cross SOCLO at 4000, cleared the RNAV runway 10 approach."

From this point, I’m left to fly the procedure on my own. Before WAAS, I’d have been busy during the holding-pattern course reversal (which, given my arrival from the southeast, was best accomplished with a parallel entry into the oval holding pattern).

For reasons I’ve never understood, many pilots intensely dislike parallel entries. The GNS530W, however, makes the U-turn a non-event. The moving map shows your airplane’s position relative to the charted hold, and the unit prompts you to fly specific headings. It even starts a timer at the appropriate moment. Just follow the magenta line, and you’ll fly a textbook entry and then track directly back to the initial fix for the approach.




A few minutes later, I was heading directly toward the runway, riding the GPS-generated glideslope toward the LPV DA of 497 feet MSL. These GPS-based glideslopes are the real magic behind WAAS. In effect, they turn most approaches into ILS-like procedures that are typically available only at big airports. The Whidbey controller cleared me to switch the CTAF and asked me to report on the ground.

On such a dreary day, I had the airport mostly to myself. The only other traffic was a Robinson R22 helicopter working in the traffic pattern. I landed and cleared the runway. I couldn’t talk to Whidbey on the radio, so I drew my cell phone and called the Seattle Flight Service Station, which relayed my arrival to Whidbey and then obtained my IFR clearance back to Renton. I was back in the air in just a few minutes, well ahead of my clearance void time. Whidbey confirmed radar contact and aimed me west of Paine Field (KPAE) en route back to Renton at 3000 feet.


The ride home was smoother, and the efficient, friendly controllers soon had me set up for the RNAV (GPS) Rwy 15 approach to KRNT.

But as often happens, things don’t work out quite as planned. After several handoffs, the last controller issued my approach clearance: "Bonanza 46 Foxtrot, cross LUTSY at 2000, cleared the RNAV runway 15 approach."

I had just gotten established on the intermediate segment of the procedure from LUTSY when the controller announced Plan B.

"Bonanza 46 Foxtrot, there’s a Boeing 737 first flight about to depart Renton, I need to turn you east and bring you back around."

Renton is home to the Boeing 737 factory, and because of rising terrain south of the airport, fledgling Boeing jets always take off to the north, over Lake Washington. This jet would be aimed directly at me if I didn’t turn.

A series of vectors followed, driving me in a neat box pattern back around to the north (see the GPS track). I twisted knobs and punched buttons to reload the procedure, and in a few minutes, I was back at LUTSY, this time for good. I broke through the clouds in plenty of time to see the runway, and once again, I rode a GPS glideslope right to the touchdown zone on the runway. Just like Flight Simulator….




If you haven’t had the opportunity to see WAAS in action, track down a pilot who has a WAAS-capable unit and go for a ride. It’s terrific leap forward in safety and utility for pilots who fly IFR.

University of Michigan Aeronautical Engineers Study Birds

imageInteresting story from the U of M about aeronautical engineers who study "low Reynolds number aircraft" (i.e., birds). Factoids from the press release:

A Blackbird jet flying nearly 2,000 miles per hour covers 32 body lengths per second. But a common pigeon flying at 50 miles per hour covers 75.

The roll rate of the aerobatic A-4 Skyhawk plane is about 720 degrees per second. The roll rate of a barn swallow exceeds 5,000 degrees per second.

Check out the slide show link in the article. Great photos.

Northwest Aviation Convention and Trade Show

I will give two presentations at the annual Northwest Aviation Conference and Trade Show at the Western Washington Fairgrounds in Puyallup, WA on February 23-24. (The closest GA airport is Pierce County Airport-Thun Field KPLU.)

Map image

On Saturday at 4:30 p.m., I will speak about Using Flight Simulator as a Training Aid.


On Sunday, I talk about Stall/Spin/Upset Training at 1:00 p.m.