United Technologies and General Electric knew their helicopters might catch fire and crash before the companies sold them to the American military, a new lawsuit contends.
Two major defense contractors sold military helicopters to the U.S. government even though the corporations knew their products were prone to crash, according to lawsuits filed last month in U.S. District Court in New Haven.Stratford-based Sikorsky Aircraft, its parent company United Technologies (UTC) and General Electric (GE), the engine-producer, knowingly supplied the military with a defective aircraft: the $20 million, MH-53E helicopter, the lawsuits allege.One of these helicopters crashed two years ago in Italy during a routine mission, killing the four men aboard, according to the suit, and the Navy’s investigation of the crash concluded the helicopter went down because engine No. 2 was on fire.That shouldn’t have been news to Sikorsky, the plaintiffs contend, since a 1993 military-Sikorsky study reported that the No. 2 engine had experienced at least 16 “thermal incidents” up to that time – 10 years before the Italy crash.United Technologies referred questions to Sikorsky, and Ed Steadham, the Communications Director for Sikorsky Aircraft, said in a phone message that the company “would not be commenting on any of these lawsuits.” Gary Sheffer, GE’s Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs, did not return calls requesting comment.“There are a lot of companies, and United Technologies is a great example, that have their principal profit derived from military hardware,” said Pratap Chatterjee, the director of Oakland, Calif.-based Corpwatch, a nonprofit research organization. “For many of them, their sales have gone through the roof in the last few years. Halliburton, for example, has seen its profits increase by 60 or 70 percent. And a lot of times [defense contractors’] products are defective or they don’t work, but they get paid anyway. That’s the beauty of it. No matter whether the product works or not, you will get paid.“Chatterjee cited former Rolling Stone writer William Greider’s book Fortress America, which describes all of the equipment and armor purchased by the U.S. military that is not in service.“Most of it can barely get off the ground,” Chatterjee said. “It doesn’t work well or work at all, so it just piles up.“The families of Commander Kevin Bianchi, Lieutenant Peter Ober and Sailor Brian Gibson filed lawsuits July 15, and one asked for $10 million in punitive damages. A fourth suit, on behalf of the family Sailor Samuel Cox, was filed in federal court in New York.The attorneys representing the families are New York City-based Michael Sherwin, William Bloss of Koskoff, Koskoff & Beider in Bridgeport and New Haven attorney Joel Faxon. Sherwin’s firm, Kreindler & Kreindler on Park Avenue, specializes in aviation law and has a number of attorneys who are pilots and former military personnel. Sherwin himself is a former Navy intelligence officer and F-18 pilot.Another attorney in his firm working on the case, Frank Fleming, at one time flew the MH-53E, the largest heavy lift helicopter made in the U.S., Sherwin said.“We don’t just take any of these kinds of cases,” Sherwin said in a phone interview Friday. “This case had good reasonable factual grounding. Cases like this are extremely difficult and expensive – they’re very complex.“Product liability suits such as this one are not unique for military products or any other type of aircraft, said Garrett Moore, a Cheshire-based attorney who specializes in aviation cases and is a pilot himself. However, if the MH-53E did have defective components and the companies knew it, he said, they could be in big trouble.On July 16, 2003, the MH-53E in question crashed about 10 miles west of U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, Italy during what Sherwin called a “check flight.” A fire in the No. 2 engine caused the aircraft to lose power and crash, Sherwin said, despite the pilots’ attempt to go through the emergency checklist of procedures provided by the manufacturer.“They were not in combat,” he said. “…They were in a sterile environment. They went through the procedures and it still didn’t save them.“This checklist of procedures was apparently part of the operator’s manual for the aircraft. It was produced by the military and the instructors, in cooperation with the manufacturer, Sherwin said.“The design of the engine was deficient and the instructions were not clear and not proper,” he said. “…We are alleging that these procedures helped contribute to their deaths.“The Navy’s investigation of the crash focused on the fire in engine No. 2, so the attorneys looked into the MH-53E’s history. They discovered, according to Sherwin, that the MH-53E has had a history of mechanical as well as engine problems.“There have been a plethora of crashes, and the military has grounded its MH-53s in the past,” he said, noting a Marine Corps decision to not use the aircraft after an inordinate number of crashes occurred in a short time. They also learned about a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and Sikorsky to study the issue of in-flight fires and obtained a copy of the resulting report, which was released in June 1993.The corporations failed “to address in-flight engine failure or thermal incidents due to foreign object damage, instruct crews that upon in-flight failure or thermal incident of the Number 2 engine it was necessary to land immediately, instruct crews that upon in-flight failure or thermal incident of the Number 2 engine to manually cut off fuel supply to the Number 2 engine; and to otherwise recognize, identify, track and mitigate the risks and hazards associated with the installation of the Number 2 engine,” the lawsuit says.The plaintiffs are claiming negligence, product liability, breach of warranty, and failure to comply with military specifications. The complaints allege the manufacturers did not meet a number of obligations, but they specifically accuse the makers of the MH-53E of not addressing the issue of in-flight fires and failing to warn the military of the risk.“It wasn’t designed properly in the first place and they knew it,” Sherwin said. “And [Sikorsky] failed to notify the U.S. military.“This failure to warn is the key to his case, Sherwin said, since a 1988 Supreme Court decision, Boyle v. UTC, gave defense contractors “almost blanket immunity” if the specifications for the product were approved by the military. The only way to pierce this immunity, he explained, is to prove that the contractor was aware of a defect or a risk, but failed to warn the military of its existence.Another suit with similar allegations was filed in federal court during the same week in Miami, Fla. This action alleges mechanical problems led to a crash of an Air Force MH-53 Pave Low in combat in Afghanistan in November 2003.The MH-53E was a variation on the H-53 helicopter, which only has two GE turbo shaft engines, the Bianchi lawsuit says. The MH-53E has a third engine, the Number 2, and other modifications.The MH-53E is powered by three 4,380 shp General Electric engines, according to the Sikorsky Web site, and can carry 16 tons of supplies, cargo, vehicles, artillery and troops for 500 nautical miles. It operates at cruise speeds of 170 knots (almost 200 miles per hour) and has an unlimited range because of air-to-air refueling.Sikorsky announced on its web site plans to install the bigger and better 4,750 shp engine into the MH-53s and upgrade the cockpit.