A Matter of Insurance

Precision Airmotive denied insurance, future of float carburetors in question.

One wouldn’t expect the 1999 crash of a Cessna 150 trainer to interrupt the world’s supply of Marvel Schebler (MSA) float carburetors and parts. However, that’s exactly what has happened. As a result of that crash — which injured flight instructor Nicholas Grace and student Mark Godfrey — and subsequent litigation, MSA float carburetor manufacturer Precision Airmotive has been unable to obtain liability insurance. “The insurance firms wouldn’t even offer us a quote,” says Scott Grafenauer, president of Precision Airmotive.

The result? Without liability insurance, the world’s only source of MSA float carburetors — used in roughly 100,000 Lycoming, TCM, and Franklin engines — has shut down production, and laid off employees at the Precision Airmotive plant in Marysville, WA. “Float carburetors and parts account for about 30 to 35 percent of our total business,” Grafenauer tells AMT magazine. “We’re still manufacturing fuel injection and FADEC systems, but no more float carburetors.”

At press time, Precision Airmotive had signed a tentative agreement with a group led by Aero Accessories Inc.’s president Tim Henderson, to sell its MSA production line to his company. As reported by EAA News (www.eaa.org), the deal would see the production line moved to AAI’s plant in Gibsonville, NC, with the carburetors sold under AAI’s Tempest brand name. However, this move would not be completed until Jan. 31, 2008, leaving a gap in production until that time.

How did float carburetor users end up in the middle of this mess, and what does it mean for aviation maintenance as a whole? To find out, AMT has put together the pieces of this puzzle.

The crash
On the night of July 26, 1999, flight instructor Nicholas Grace and student Mark Godfrey took off in a Cessna 150, from a small airport near Daytona Beach, FL. It was a night training flight: Godfrey was lifting off from a touch-and-go landing when the Cessna’s engine failed. According to www.lawyersweeklyusa.com, “The pilots attempted an emergency landing on a nearby roadway, but clipped the top of a tree and crashed nose-first into the ground.” Both men were injured.

Afterwards, Grace and Godfrey contended that their crash was caused by a defect in their Cessna’s float carburetor — one made by Precision Airmotive and installed by Teledyne. After years of litigation, a jury found for the plaintiffs in Godfrey vs. Precision Airmotive, and a judge awarded a $54.5 million verdict. The judge assessed $38.6 million against Precision Airmotive and $15.9 million against Teledyne. According to Grafenauer, the defendants are fighting the decision.

The context
The Marvel Schebler float carburetor can trace its history back to the early days of internal combustion engines. In fact, George Schebler of Batesville, IN, is credited as being the person who invented the carburetor. According to www.batesvilleareahistoricalsociety.org, Schebler, “a local farmer and tinkerer, devised a gadget out of a tin can and butterfly flap which he eventually marketed and manufactured under the name Schebler Carburetor. His invention remained basically unchanged from his original patent in 1902 until the fuel injection process was begun in the mid 1960s.”

Schebler apparently sold his stake in 1912, but his carburetor firm lived on and became the Marvel Schebler Carburetor Company by 1928. In 1982 the aviation side of the business was purchased by Facet Aerospace. Eight years later, Precision Airmotive bought it from Facet.

This sense of history was very much present in the Nov. 1, 2007 letter that announced Precision Airmotive’s shutdown of floating carburetor production. “These FAA-approved carburetors were designed as early as the 1930s and continue to fly over a million flight hours a year,” writes Precision Airmotive general manager Roger Hall. “After decades of service, the reliability of these carburetors speaks for itself.

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