An Orange County jury will begin deliberations today in a civil case over whether the world's largest helicopter supplier failed to warn pilots adequately of fuel system flaws in a craft widely used by oil companies and law enforcement, fire and news crews.
The wrongful-death and product liability case against Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. focuses on the final minutes of veteran helicopter pilot Floyd Hiser's life--minutes Hiser spent battling a forest fire in the San Bernardino Mountains near Highland on July 6, 1997.
Hiser had logged more than 13,000 flight hours in his 20-year career and specialized in dousing large forest fires. He was piloting a Bell 260L-1 "Long Ranger" when it plummeted and shattered on a canyon slope. The 51-year-old pilot had just dumped 140 gallons of water on the fast-moving Hemlock fire when he radioed, "Mayday! . . . I have flameout. . . . I'm going down."
Rescue crews rappelled to the crash site and dragged a dying Hiser from the wreckage.
Hiser's widow, Sharon, filed a lawsuit alleging that the crash was caused by a fuel system malfunction that has downed scores of pilots of the 1980s-era aircraft. She also alleges in a suit, filed three years ago in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana, that Bell Helicopter was aware of the problem and devised a switch that would alert pilots to brewing fuel-line troubles.
The lawsuit alleges that Bell executives decided against retrofitting all of the helicopters with the device because of the expense.
Bell has strongly denied the allegations and says Hiser was responsible for the accident. First, the pilot failed to put enough gasoline in his chopper, hoping perhaps to lighten the aircraft's weight to increase its speed and lifting power, Bell lawyer Peter Brotzen argued in court. Second, he said, Hiser could have saved his life if he had jettisoned the water container attached to his helicopter and performed an autorotation, a maneuver that helicopter pilots use to cushion a crash if they lose power.
"There was no fuel system malfunction here," Brotzen said Monday.
Hiser's family and lawyer say Bell has wrongly blamed this and other accidents on pilot error. Allegations that Hiser's craft ran out of gas are ridiculous, they say, because Hiser was too cautious to take such a risk.
Besides, they say, the interior of the crashed helicopter and the grass and shrubs surrounding it were soaked with aircraft fuel.
"Sharon Hiser had hoped to save her husband's flight suit as a tattered reminder of his life," said her lawyer, Douglas Schroeder. "But it was saturated so heavily with jet fuel that even after five washings it had to be thrown away."
The lawyer insisted that Hiser's last flight would have had a very different outcome had Bell required the installation of so-called selectable fuel quantity switches in Hiser's and other helicopters.
The switch, Schroeder said, would allow pilots to monitor the level of fuel in the helicopter's main and reserve tanks. This gauge would show pilots whether fuel was being trapped in the reserve tanks and allow them time for an emergency landing.
"Instead, Mr. Hiser never even knew such a thing existed," Schroeder said. "I'm convinced that he'd be alive today if that aircraft had this device."
Bell's lawyer argued the device would have done nothing to save the pilot's life. Brotzen compared it to a computer feature in automobiles that would tell drivers how much fuel they had left and how many more miles they could drive.
"It's a nice feature to have, but not one you need to safely operate your car," Brotzen said.
Hiser, a contract pilot for the U.S. Forest Service, was a resident of Cincinnati stationed in California.
The case is being heard in Santa Ana rather than Texas, where Bell Helicopter is based, because it originally named a local valve manufacturing firm as a co-defendant. That firm has since been dismissed from the case.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages plus $400,000 in lost wages and other expenses, such as funeral costs.