Jury absolves autopilot maker in crash of small plane

The first lawsuits were filed within weeks after Itzhak Jacoby's small Beechcraft Bonanza fell from the skies over Newark, plunging out of control into a working-class neighborhood the day after Thanksgiving in 1999.

Eight years later, the litigation only now is winding down.

Last week, a federal jury found the manufacturer of the autopilot in Jacoby's aircraft was not to blame in the fiery crash that killed Jacoby, his wife and 13-year-old daughter, and one person on the ground. At least 25 others were injured.

A judge is still weighing a jury's recommendation finding no fault with air traffic controllers as well.

Among the parties in the lawsuit was Jacoby's estate, which settled with some of the victims more than six years ago with a $2 million payment split among them.

At issue in the recent trial was whether S-TEC Corp., a small Texas company that manufactures flight instrumentation, bore responsibility for the crash, and whether the federal air traffic controllers who cleared Jacoby's flight path were at fault.

The accident occurred on Nov. 26, 1999, shortly after Jacoby lifted off the runway at Linden Airport, accompanied by his wife, Gail - chief of planning at the National Institute on Aging - and their younger daughter, Atira.

Jacoby, 56, who served as a top official with the Uniformed Services University, a training center for military doctors, held an airline transport pilot certificate and a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for multi-engine aircraft, seaplanes and gliders. He had flown into Linden two days earlier from Bethesda, Md., to spend Thanksgiving in Brooklyn with their newly married older daughter, and was on his way home.

Court briefs noted that it was a poor day for flying. A stationary weather front was present over the East Coast with thick, overcast skies, low ceilings and moderate turbulence.

The flight ran into troubles within minutes of takeoff.

"I have a problem," Jacoby radioed departure control. His instruments were inexplicably failing, and he did not know why.

"Can you try to give me a climb?" radioed Jacoby. The controller, still not sure what was wrong, instead directed Jacoby to turn the plane to avoid airline traffic from nearby Newark International Airport, according to transcripts.

The aircraft went into a steep dive, clipping a building before slamming into Kent Street in Newark, killing all on board.

The National Transportation Safety Board later cited instrument failure, as well as the presence of the sedative butalbital in Jacoby's body, as factors in the crash. According to medical records, Jacoby had suffered from migraine headaches for more than 20 years and used Fiorinal - a prescription medication containing barbiturate, aspirin and caffeine - to control the pain. It was a condition that would have grounded him had it been disclosed to the FAA.

After the insurance carrier for Jacoby's estate settled with some of those injured on the ground, the estate and other plaintiffs joined in the litigation against S-TEC Corp. and the government, claiming the Bonanza's autopilot was defective and the air traffic controllers did not respond to the pilot's call for assistance.

The fiercely litigated case involved more than 80 depositions, hundreds of thousands of pages of briefs, witness statements and documents, and 500 court filings over eight years.

During the trial in federal court in Newark, attorneys for S-TEC said the autopilot was not being used at the time of the crash and had not malfunctioned.

"There is no evidence that showed he was trying to use the autopilot," said attorney David Zeehandelaar of Blank Rome in Cherry Hill.

Government attorneys said there was only so much an air traffic controller on the ground could do.

"A controller can provide air traffic control services and no more. He can not step into the cockpit; he cannot fly the machine," the Department of Justice said in court briefs.

After eight weeks of trial involving more than 40 witnesses, the jury deliberated for three days before ruling in favor of S-TEC.

U.S. District Judge Harold Ackerman is still considering an advisory jury verdict recommending no damages against the government.

Attorneys for the estate yesterday did not return calls for comment.

Ted Sherman may be reached at tsherman@starledger.com or (973) 392-4278.