Bay Area Weather Related Aviation Accidents

The Bay Area personal injury attorneys at the Law Offices of Sterns & Walker represent victims of aviation accidents where weather played a part in the failure of the plane to fly or land safely.  Despite the technology available to keep planes functioning, design defects and human error continue to plague aircraft in difficult weather.

Ice and Icing

Ice can form on planes on the ground, or in flight when a plane flies through clouds where freezing water is suspended, although not visible, causing the aircraft to lose flight capability, or drastically change the way in which the plane responds to the pilot’s controls.  Planes have equipment on board to keep the wings and tail clear of ice, but these devices can be overpowered by severe icing.

Given the difficulties in controlling icy planes, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommends that pilots not engage the autopilot feature in icy conditions.  The Federal Aviation Administration takes a more lenient approach, recommending against autopilot use only under severe icy conditions.  Neither recommendation has the force of law, leaving it up to the airlines to determine how to train their pilots in this regard.  Early in 2009, a Continental Express flight crashed into a house in Buffalo, New York, killing all 48 people aboard.  It is known that the pilot had engaged the de-icing system shortly after takeoff to take care of significant buildup on the wings.  It is also known that the autopilot was engaged during the brief course of this ill-fated flight.


In 2005, a Helios Airlines flight crashed en route from Cyprus to Greece as a result of loss of cabin pressure.  Before takeoff, the crew had failed to change the pressurization setting from manual to automatic.  Shortly after takeoff, the cabin altitude horn went off, which was supposed to have signaled a pressurization problem in the cabin.  However, as Boeing knows, this same horn was a warning for three separate conditions, not just pressure.  The crew instead misinterpreted the horn as a take-off configuration warning.  Since there cannot be a problem with take-off after the plane is already in flight, the crew believed the warning was going off incorrectly.  As the plane continued to ascend, the crew set about trying to disconnect the warning signal.  Gradually, the oxygen left the cockpit and cabin as the plane ascended without pressurization.  This lack of oxygen caused hypoxia in the passengers and crew, who at first became confused and then lost consciousness without realizing the true nature of their situation.  With the majority of passengers and crew unconscious, the plane crashed into a mountain, killing everyone on board.

It is unclear why the pilots did not put on oxygen masks and descend to a safe altitude, perhaps because, unlike those masks in the passenger cabin, which automatically drop down with a pressure loss, the pilots masks are located behind and under their seats, and have to be wrested out manually, that is assuming they have detected and are aware of the impending hypoxia problem.  There is no automatic backup when pressure drops.  It appears that the crew consistently misread the warning signals until it was too late.  One thing that is known is that the same plane had experienced a loss of cabin pressure on another flight months earlier, that the plane’s environmental control system had been repaired five times in the previous two months, and that a noise consistent with a faulty door seal had earlier been reported.

The Helios aircraft was a Boeing 737, the most widely used aircraft in existence.  We believe that the 737 contains numerous dangerous design and operational flaws by linking three totally different malfunctions to the same warning signal; by not providing a “fail safe” switch that would automatically deploy to pressurize if the aircraft left the ground with the missed position switch in the wrong setting – classic back-up and redundancy:  the first rule of aircraft system design; and due to the inadequate pilot oxygen delivery system.

The aviation accident attorneys at Sterns & Walker have obtained verdicts and settlements for a variety of weather-related crash victims, including the accident described above.  For assistance in investigating the cause of a crash, preparing a case against the airline, and obtaining a settlement or verdict that compensates victims and their families contact the Law Offices of Sterns & Walker today.