Florida Glider Accident Attorneys

Gliders, or sailplanes, employ low drag, low wing loading designs to remain in flight.  The sport is also known as “soaring.”  After launching via a pull from a bungee, vehicle or winch on the ground, or by being towed into the air by another aircraft, a sailplane pilot uses currents of rising air in the atmosphere to remain airborne.  These currents can come from rising warm air (thermals), air lifting after it deflects upward upon hitting a mountain (ridge lift) or standing waves in the atmosphere (wave lift).  Pilots use these lifts to gain altitude and soar from lift source to lift source until completing the flight.  Some aircraft are equipped with deployable propellers and engines called motor gliders.

Glider Accident Statistics

For the twelve-month period ending October 31, 2012, 24 gliders, seven motor gliders, and one tow-plane were involved in 30 separate accidents which met the reporting requirements of NTSB Part 830 of the Code of Federal Regulations, according to The Soaring Safety Foundation’s 2012 annual fiscal year report.  This represented an over 11 percent increase in the number of accidents reported during the fiscal year 2011 reporting period.

Continuing a long historical trend, the largest number of accidents occurred during the landing phase of flight during this reporting period.  In fiscal year 2012, landing accidents represented 60 percent of all accidents.  An aborted launch accident, called PT3 (Premature Termination of The Tow) events, accounted for 23.3 percent of the accidents.  Thus, over 80 percent of accidents were somehow tied to human factors such as judgment and aircraft control.

Glider Accident Liability

The sailplane industry has a very limited exposure to commercial operations, which raises the issue of traditional tort liability with respect to the operation of the plane.  In many cases a sailplane would be operated by an owner of the aircraft and not for hire, which limits suit to the pilot and pilot’s estate.

In some areas of the country, however, individuals can purchase glider rides.  In these cases, negligence on the part of an operator or pilot could lead to liability.  Glider pilots are required to earn a glider rating, which is a full FAA pilot’s license.  Additionally, to work for hire, the pilots must be commercially licensed and hold a commercial pilot’s license.  As a professional, an individual will be held to a professional duty of care under the law.  Sailplane operations will likewise be held to a professional duty of care in maintaining aircraft and providing properly trained pilots.

Flight instruction accidents would also fall into this category.  Sailplane flight instructors are also commercially licensed.  Additionally, they have earned their flight instructor’s certificate, which would increase their onus of responsibility.

The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994, also known as “GARA,” was passed by Congress a measure to shield most manufacturers of aircraft (carrying fewer than 20 persons) from liability for most accidents involving aircraft 18 years old or older at the time of the accident.  Although there are several exceptions carved out of the law, it is frequently used to defend product liability suits in older aircraft.

GARA is not a panacea with respect to all aviation-related products liability lawsuits brought more than eighteen years after the product in question was delivered.  Specifically, GARA only affords its protection to general aviation aircraft.  GARA defines a “general aviation aircraft” as “any aircraft for which a type certificate or an airworthiness certificate has been issued by the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.”  GARA, §2(c).  Moreover, pursuant to 14 CFR §21.175, the FAA may offer only two types of airworthiness certificates, “standard” and “special:”

(a)   Standard airworthiness certificates are airworthiness certificates issued for aircraft type certificated in the normal, utility, acrobatic, commuter, or transport category, and for manned free balloons, and for aircraft designated by the Administrator as special classes of aircraft.

(b)  Special airworthiness certificates are primary, restricted, limited, light-sport, and provisional airworthiness certificates, special flight permits, and experimental certificates.

Pursuant to an FAA Advisory Circular 21.17-2A, procedures for type certification and airworthiness for special classes of aircraft, including “gliders and powered gliders,” were established.   These procedures appear to convey GARA products liability to qualifying aircraft.

In accidents involving older aircraft, attorneys have turned their liability attention to other relationships in the general aviation industry as alternative defendants to the manufacturers, including:

  • flight schools
  • aircraft owners
  • parts manufacturers
  • parts retailers
  • mechanics and repair stations
  • flight instructors and individual pilots
  • the insurance carriers of all of the above

Podhurst Orseck attorneys have extensive experience with general aviation accidents and glider litigation.  We have represented general aviation accidents from around the country and helped secure landmark verdicts and safety changes in the aviation industry.