ValuJet Postscript: give a statement . . . go to jail

ValuJet Postscript Give a statement...go to jail By Stephen P. Prentice October 1999 Stephen P. Prentice is an attorney whose practice involves FAA-NTSB issues. He has an Airframe and Powerplant certificate and is an ATP rated pilot...


ValuJet Postscript

Give a statement...go to jail

By Stephen P. Prentice

October 1999

Stephen P. Prentice

Most of us feel obligated to assist in accident investigations and usually tell all we know — including items that will sometimes get us into trouble. Sure, you may know there could be civil penalties and certificate actions, but you would not usually expect a criminal complaint!

In a previous column, I wrote about being cautious when "self-disclosing" (AC 00-58) to FAA and other government authorities. Confession may be good for the soul, but the mea culpa feeling you have about confessing could be your ticket to jail. In the case of accident investigations, remember you don't get any Miranda warnings about your rights before giving statements. NTSB or other Federal authorities do not have to give you the warning about your rights when you are not "in custody." This means you can incriminate yourself first and later on, be arrested on the basis of what you said!

Federal SabreTech indictments
Former SabreTech employees were indicted recently for their statements and actions surrounding the ValuJet accident. The three technicians from SabreTech were arrested, partly because of statements they gave to the FAA people during the ValuJet investigation.

Many observers called it arbitrary and clearly political grandstanding when the indictments were announced. After all, three years have passed. The Florida State District Attorney filed a separate criminal indictment against SabreTech. Not to be outdone, the U.S. Attorney in Miami followed with his own indictment of SabreTech and three former maintenance employees. There may have been a race to see who would gain the dubious distinction of being first to file.

The technicians also are alleged to have failed to place safety caps on the oxygen generator canisters and yet signed work forms showing they did. All the supervisors and inspectors, including the ValuJet people, did not detect this serious failure. They all ducked for cover and let the technicians take the heat. Besides, having the safety caps in place would not make them legal to carry aboard the aircraft. Along with the inflated tires, they were hazardous and forbidden to be carried by regulation. The technicians most likely never saw the safety caps and if they did, probably did not know what to do with them. There were conflicts in statements regarding whether or not the canisters were empty (expended) and therefore, inert. One could easily be led to believe that inert containers did not need safety caps. Who worries about discarded parts?

The conclusion, however, is that if the safety caps had been in place the accident would not have happened. Of course, you can only put individuals, not a corporation, in jail. SabreTech only exists on paper if at all. There is little left to handle the legal attack anyhow.

FAR 121.363: Responsibility for Airworthiness
What about the rule that says an air carrier is responsible for its contractors? FAR 121.363(b)?

"(b) A certificate holder may make arrangements with another person for the performance of maintenance. However, this does not relieve the certificate holder of responsibility (for airworthiness)."

Why was the oversight with the oxygen canisters not detected by ValuJet quality inspectors on- site? Or were they on-site at all? When did ValuJet do the last quality audit on their contractor? FAR's mandate these inspections on a regular basis. An air carrier cannot delegate its responsibility for airworthiness to a contractor, and should be in a position to double check flight safety items.

It was recommended by the Atlanta FAA staff that ValuJet be grounded before the fatal accident occurred. Somebody quashed the memo dealing with this finding. The memo was written in February and the accident occurred on May 11, 1996. After the accident, so many violations were found at the airline that they were finally grounded. Not that we want them to, but why are the prosecutors not chasing ValuJet or its people?

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