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Ditch in the Lake

March 5, 2019

The events aloft that are most feared by pilots are; structural failure, fire, and being rebuffed by a suitably alluring co-pilot. Your insurance may, or may not cover all of these.





The aircraft was a Cessna 400 series twin, and shortly after takeoff from an airstrip adjacent to a large lake, the pilot noted with grave concern that there were flames issuing from the louvres on the top surface of the right hand engine nacelle. Fortunately, there were no passengers on board, and the aircraft had just turned out over the lake, still in the climb.

After giving the matter the required speedy consideration, the pilot decided that, due to the size of the flames, there was insufficient time to turn and land on the strip from which he had just taken off, before the fire resulted in structural failure. He accordingly decided to ditch near some fishing boats, and managed to do so without sustaining any physical injury. He unstrapped and then hurried rearwards to the air-stair door at the aft end of the cabin where he exited safely before the aircraft sank. The fishermen rescued him, and later the owners of the aircraft submitted a claim to their insurers.

The pilot, who was also a qualified engineer and maintained the aircraft, to his misfortune, had an extremely chequered career. The insurer’s investigation no doubt revealed its details, and they were therefore unsurprisingly suspicious that the aircraft may have been ditched simply in order to have it written off and the owners put in the position to lodge the claim.

They therefore mounted an expensive salvage exercise to retrieve the machine from the bottom of the lake. Fortunately the aircraft was in a fairly shallow part at a depth of approximately 20 metres. It should be noted that care is required when retrieving an aircraft that has sunk, as when it breaks the surface it is still full of water. Unless this is allowed to drain slowly the weight of the aircraft plus water is generally sufficient to cause structural failure in the event of careless, premature lifting clear of the water.

The remains of the machine were retrieved and despatched to Johannesburg where they were stored for further investigation. One metal louvre was cut from the top of the left and right-hand upper cowlings, presumably for the purpose of a hardness test comparing heat damage between the two. Apparently there was little or no significant difference, and on this basis the insurers decided to repudiate the claim.

Many insurance policies give claimants and/or insurers the option of using the court procedure or alternatively arbitration to adjudicate disputed cases. At that time it was considered that arbitration was less costly than going to court, although this is not always the case. Accordingly after some negotiation and discussion an arbitrator was agreed upon and a second insurance assessor was approached to assist the claimant.

The second assessor appointed an engineer with considerable knowledge and experience of metallurgy to assist. In the first instance it should be noted that a huge amount of air is circulated around aircraft piston engine installations for the purposes of cooling. Not only are the cylinders and oil air cooled, but in this case also a turbocharger behind the engine which runs red hot. Pipes and wiring are also often required to be heat shielded. Thus, despite the fact that there may have been flames occurring in the engine bay, due to the high volume of air circulating, it is not impossible nor unheard of, to have relatively minor damage. Particularly if the flames only burn for a short time.

A careful inspection was done on the remaining aircraft parts, with specific reference to the engine installations. It was noted that there was relatively little difference between the components in the two engine bays. But when the two upper cowlings were placed side-by-side, when viewed from the inside the right upper cowling revealed significantly more blistering, some discolouration and a ‘crazy paving’ effect near the louvres. The origin of the fire was not established.

This was reported to the claimant’s legal team, and comparative photographs were supplied. During the arbitration this evidence was presented, and subsequently the two upper cowlings were brought to the arbitration room for inspection by the arbitrator and interested parties. This evidence supported the pilot’s story.

Ultimately this resulted in the insurer reconsidering the matter, and a compromise solution was reached.

What can we learn?

When investigating for claimants if a pilot’s story appears questionable it is always advisable, whilst remaining objective, to adopt the view that he or she is telling the truth, and to proceed on this basis. This is with the proviso that good research is done and sufficient facts are available to ensure that the pilot’s evidence can be accepted.

So if you are unfortunately in the position where you are lodging a claim, support your claim with as much empirical evidence as possible. Photos, eyewitness accounts, engineers reports, and full aircraft airworthiness and maintenance documentation, if available, are a good start for a successful outcome.


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