View Full Version : Pilot files suit against Vegas tour company - Biting the hand that feeds you?
Las Vegas SUN
Ex-pilot files suit against Vegas company involved in fatal crash
LAS VEGAS (AP) - A helicopter tour company involved in a deadly 2001 crash did not allow its pilots time to make adequate inspections and discouraged the reporting of maintenance problems, a former pilot has claimed in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters had "poor, unsafe, and unhealthful working conditions" and maintained "a nearly impossible flight schedule" under which stressed pilots couldn't take breaks between sightseeing tours, according to a lawsuit filed last month by former Papillon pilot Charles Lawson.
Lawson, 38, accused Papillon of terminating him because he shared those and other allegations with National Transportation Safety Board officials investigating an August 2001 Papillon crash that killed six people.
"It was his duty to testify accurately at the NTSB hearing regarding Papillon's unsafe and/or illegal activities that were dangerous to the public welfare as well as to their employees," the lawsuit said.
Filed Nov. 25 in Clark County District Court, the lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for wrongful termination, retaliation and defamation, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported Saturday.
Papillon officials were unavailable for comment Friday, said Lee Haney of Rogich Communications Group, the public relations firm that represents Papillon.
Lawson, a pilot with nearly 20 years of experience, had been working at Papillon for about two years when one of the company's helicopters went down Aug. 10, 2001, during its return to Las Vegas from a Grand Canyon sightseeing tour.
Papillon pilot Kevin Innocenti and five of the six New York tourists on board died in the crash. The helicopter went down 60 miles east of Las Vegas near the town of Meadview, Ariz.
Federal investigators interviewed all Papillon pilots and mechanics about a week after the crash. During one of those interviews, Lawson told federal investigators Papillon officials chastised pilots for reporting maintenance issues and required pilots to first notify company officials before recording mechanical problems in the aircraft logbook.
Lawson was laid off a few months after the interview.
The crash remains under investigation by the NTSB, which released a report earlier this year saying federal investigators have narrowed their focus to a few possible causes, including a loss of hydraulic pressure, stalling, pilot incapacitation or engine malfunction. Papillon officials believe a hydraulic failure occurred, causing Innocenti to lose control of the aircraft.
A lawsuit filed by the sole survivor of the crash has blamed pilot error and a faulty engine.
Federal officials are expected to make an official ruling regarding the probable cause early next year.
Hmmm - interesting. :ooh:
8th Dec 2003, 22:50
Welcome to the real world of Helicopters. What can you expect if you bite the hand that feeds you.....
9th Dec 2003, 00:13
I've changed your Subject to include Bert's point.
9th Dec 2003, 04:22
Thanks for the favor......or are you just putting me up front......
Its true though. I see it happen a lot. Guys get a chance to do Potty Mouth on the Company that gives them a Paycheck and then they figure they are due for promotion........NOT.
You dont like a companies operation, the door swings both ways.
At least so far WE keep our whining inside the Chief Pilots Office.
9th Dec 2003, 05:38
We are in a righteous mood, aren’t we?
In Australia there has been a CAR, Confidential Aviation Report in existence for 20 years, basically its is a report that anyone can initiate and forward to the NTSB [Old BASI], and that will be investigated, and if need be, will lead to disciplinary action of anyone operating outside the law.
This system has helped the Aussie folk enjoy the highest standard of aviation safety anywhere.
Pity these guys never used the US equivalent, it may have prevented the deaths of their friends.
Don't pay out on this chap, under the new rules in Oz, the NTSB has power supreme, "answer my questions son, or you’re not going anywhere, except detention!!!"
This man by all accounts was being officially questioned by the NTSB, therefore he may have been under oath.
What are his choices?, tell the truth about his exboss, those actions regarding duty hours seem to have been a contributing factor in a fatal action, and seems to be still doing the same [not proven]. Or to lie to the NTSB and put yourself outside the law.
9th Dec 2003, 06:04
Let me get this straight.
The NTSB wants to talk to you about a helicopter that dug a hole in the same operation that you fly for.
You tell them that you aren't allowed to adequately preflight, and
you tell them that you're regularly discouraged from reporting squawks, and
The NTSB tells your employer what you said,
and they terminate your employment, and
YOU GUYS DON'T HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THIS?
Okay, so we've got a responsibility to our employers. Do we have a responsibility to our passengers? Or other passengers that might fly with our company?
For me, there's nothing in the world that trumps my commitment to my pax. Fortunately, now I fly for a company that expects and demands that I reduce their revenue rather than risk a passenger.
Now if the guy is using the NTSB as a tool to stick it to his employer, well that's pretty scummy. But before you guys posted, did you consider that maybe the guy was being honest? Maybe he didn't want to say what he did, but maybe he felt he had to?
And no, I'm not that guy. I worked for another tour outfit, same canyon, same airport. But I'm not surprised. Drive by McCarran sometime, and you'll see AStars, spaced out like beads on a string, all the way to the Canyon. You get back, you have time to slam an iced tea, and you're loading pax.
Squawk an aircraft that already has a day of passengers lined up and you will purely catch hell. They are worked too hard, for too much of the day, with too little rest, and they do very, very well considering. The operators are content to collect the money, and replace the pilots as they burn out. You wouldn't tolerate this in any other 135 operation, and it shouldn't be tolerated in the Caynon, either.
I'd be wondering which NTSB rep ratted on the pilot. Those are supposed to be confidential interviews, right?
Just a quick note: will everyone who thinks that the company is in the right for losing a guy that told the NTSB about stuff he thought was unsafe, please list who you work for? I feel safer buying tickets from the other companies. Thanks.
9th Dec 2003, 09:21
I've seen how "complicated" situations can get when a "whistle-blower" emerges... at least when I was in the government. In my opinion, most whistle-blowers are self serving (with a few exceptions). The pilot worked there for OVER TWO YEARS and did nothing! If he was THAT concerned, then he should have submitted an anonymous report (NTSB, FSDO, FAA, National Park Service, or ANYONE). I don't know if the pilot is honest or not, but his motives are definately suspect... ex post facto.
9th Dec 2003, 22:39
Dr. Fate Writes:"But before you guys posted, did you consider that maybe the guy was being honest? Maybe he didn't want to say what he did, but maybe he felt he had to?"
A Point here that as in most of these nastys, its been a long time coming and why did folks wait until someone gets killed to make the decision to become righteous and ADMIT to FAR VIOLATIONS.
NTSB has anonymous whistle blowing. If this guy felt he was pressured he could have done his blabbing months before. That didnt happen....
9th Dec 2003, 22:59
I turned information over to the FAA dealing with some major problems on a certain European built aircraft. I specifically asked them not to reveal the source of the information. When they investigated my allegations they told the company who blew the whistle on them. To top that off they also turned the same information over to Boeing. The Vice president and chief program manager were fired both going to other European firms in a higher capacity. Oh yeah, they never modified the design so the problems are still there.
So much for the FAA.
9th Dec 2003, 23:58
I'm not sure when it happens, but most of us seem to learn later in life the skillful art of "when to pick the right battles" and "when to fight them." There is give and take in most situations, but not where safety is concerned. Except that I can't really comment too much on that topic because I haven't seen what the rest of you professional flyers have seen in this industry. I simply don't know what to expect or what is common place.
Nevertheless, it all boils down to individual judgement calls. I'm guessing here, but I would imagine that most tour operators (or similar) don't follow every single safety rule to the EXACT letter of the law. For example, if you KNOW about a minor issue that isn't really a big deal... you probably won't cancel the flight. After all, you are getting paid to fly, so there is probably a lot of pressure to say "yes" more than "no." I'm struggling to come up with an example here... let's say low tire pressure on one of the wheels and you aren't near an FBO to fill the pressure back to specs (a minor deficiency).
Obviously, this wouldn't be the case when something is blatently dangerous. Still, you have to wonder how far folks stretch those limits? For the pilot in question above, he admits to stretching limits FAR above what most would consider safe. It sounds like he blatently blew off safety standards, and failed to take proper action. Normally, I don't point fingers and assign blame without all the facts... but this seems kind of obvious.
In my opinion, he just opened himself up for a lawsuit. The sole survivor of one of the Papillion crashes is suing Papillion, the estate of the dead pilot, and everybody else she can. I hope she goes after this pilot, as well... what he did was dangerous and willful. If this pilot is going to "stand on moral ground" after doing it for two years, then he needs to stick with his supposed "principles" to the very end. I've always admired those with FIRM believes... folks that are the bedrock of moral leadership.... ductus ab exemplum ("leadership by example").
In contrast, I find this pilot's actions distasteful, wreckless, and unworthy of simpathy. Let's wait and see if he is really a hero sticking to his principles, or if he is a worm using the system for revenge... instead of what it was designed for. It makes you wonder about the "ifs" in this situation. "If" he was really concerned and made some calls, maybe some of these incidents might not have happened.
Okay... okay... that is too much blame to assign to one person. But it poses an ethical dilema, doesn't it? Hey, CPA's have to swear to uphold a certain standard... what TC refers to as "duty of care." Why should we expect less of pilots?
10th Dec 2003, 00:54
RDR - I missed what the dead pilot did. What happened to cause the crash?
Very interesting thread. One minute I'm all for the complainant, the next I'm not so sure. Currently I think he should not have waited until he was dismissed..............on the other hand???:suspect:
This case sounds complicated to me, with everyone cross claiming :hmm:
10th Dec 2003, 02:02
When I was working at Douglas Aircraft on the Saturn Apollo program there was a man in our group that was transferred from the Skybolt program. He had ratted out Douglas to the Air Force telling them that Douglas had falsified some very critical test reports showing the Skybolt as being better than it actually was. Douglas and North American lost the contract and over 14,000 people were laid off. I left Douglas after six-and –one-half years and that man was still working there. I believe the Air Force forced Douglas to keep that man on staff.
10th Dec 2003, 02:14
The reference to the lost pilot was related to this post...
In that thread, you will find a link posted by BlenderPilot that takes you to the following unsubstantiated website...
This last article indicates that the sole survivor was involved with litigation, seeking damages from the dead pilot's estate (a sad state of affairs). My point is that the survivor seems bent on suing everyone possible, and that the pilot's actions above seem just as negligent as the operator's actions... kind of the kettle calling the pot black, and then taking them to court for it.
Please don't mistake this for agreement that the pilot should have been fired... that is not what I am saying at all. Where safety is concerned, you have the right and obligation to report these issues... free from retribution. The Office of Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has authority to protect whistle-blowers according to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR's trump FAR's in many cases). However, this guy has been doing this for TWO YEARS, got discharged, and THEN made a stink about it. Even after pax & pilot lost their lives (not first occurance at Papillion), this pilot was silent. To me, it looks as though he didn't take action until he lost his job... and ONLY when he lost his job! I'm glad I don't have to fly with him.
10th Dec 2003, 07:18
I wish I lived in a perfect world.
...A world in which no pilot ever needed a job so badly that he couldn't just sashay into the C.P.'s office, throw down his Ops Manual, say "Sayonara, baby!" and beat feat out of there when he realized that the job was not as he imagined it or as it was described to him.
...A world in which operators never pressured pilots to talk to Maintenance before writing things up.
...A world in which operators never got p*ssed when you did write things up and grounded the ship.
...A world in which operators never scheduled flights so closely together that there just wasn't enough time for the pilot to take a decent break during the day.
...And a world in which there weren't so many gray areas between the regulations and reality.
But I don't live in such a world. Neither, evidently, does Charles Lawson.
Of Mr. Lawson, RDRickster sez:"...he admits to stretching limits FAR above what most would consider safe. It sounds like he blatently blew off safety standards, and failed to take proper action. Normally, I don't point fingers and assign blame without all the facts... but this seems kind of obvious."Not to me, it doesn't. He did nothing of the sort.
I did not read the entire actual text of Mr. Lawson's lawsuit, so we can only go by what was reprinted in Bronx's post. And in that post, Mr. Lawson describes the working conditions at Papillion as "...poor, unsafe, and unhealthful."
Under FAR part-135, the only limit placed on single-pilot operations is that we do not exceed eight hours of flight in a given twenty-four. The fact that Mr. Lawson did not receive what he considered to be proper breaks was in no way a violation of any FAA regulation. In fact, as an "exempt," salaried employee in the U.S., Papillon was not required to give him any break at all. Go figure! You want the job or not? Remember, we have a stack of resumes "this high" from pilots wanting your job!
Mr. Lawson is reported to have said that "...Papillon officials chastised pilots for reporting maintenance issues and required pilots to first notify company officials before recording mechanical problems in the aircraft logbook."
I don't know about the rest of you guys, but I have worked for companies at which the Chief Pilot "encouraged" us to at least *talk* to Maintenance before committing the write-up to paper. And to a degree, I believe this to be reasonable. Talking to Maintenance can result in a clearer, more concise and efficient write-up. And this does not violate the FAR's in any way. The FAA only requires that we enter discrepancies in a timely manner; they do not suggest that we friction down the controls in flight, whip out the old Engineering Sheet and scribble our discrep as it occurs.
However, we've all known pilots who would write-up (and therefore ground the ship) for the least little thing. Alternatively, we've all known pilots who would surreptitiously leave vague-but-grounding write-ups in the logbook, then vamoose outta there, leaving the maintenance techs scratching their heads and wondering what he meant.
Now then, do some companies go overboard on that policy a little? Sure. Was Papillion one of them? Perhaps. Was this a violation of some FAR? ...Mayyyyybe... Was the policy in writing? (Probably not.)
As for his claim that Papillon did not allow its pilots time to make adequate inspections...well, this is a bit of a canard. The morning pre-flight is a time-managment thing. If you need more time, just show up a little earlier. In between flights, do we all perform a complete and thorough pre-flight? No. Most of us merely do a quick walk-around, checking the fluid levels, tie-downs and cowling latches. A pilot who feels he must do a "first flight of the day" pre-flight every time he shuts down has issues.
This is how I see it:
The pilot, Charles Lawson spent nearly two years at Papillion, succumbing to the pressure of not getting breaks while being held to that "nearly-impossible flight schedule," and being (or witnessing other pilots being) chastised for putting write-ups in the logbook without talking to Maintenance. Maybe he felt that the working conditions, while not the best, were tolerable for him while he built his time or looked for another job or whatever. Maybe he did voice those opinions to Management. (And we all know how far that usually gets you. We have no information on that though.) And maybe he prayed that all the other pilots would deal with these pressures equally well as he and not crash.
Until Kevin Innocenti's accident.
Maybe he'd just reached his personal limit. And maybe when the NTSB came a-calling, he decided to tell them his true feelings about the way he perceived the attitude toward safety at his company.
I don't view what he did as "tattling" on his company or being disloyal. The NTSB asked; he told them. For his trouble, Papillon laid him off a few months later. Were the two events connected? Was it really a "wrongful termination?" If so, Papillon was cagey by waiting. To defend themselves, they'll have to show that other pilots were "laid off" at the same time.
Maybe this is just another example of an operator getting rid of a pilot who they perceive as a troublemaker simply because they *can* get away with it. In the U.S., many pilots are still employed "at will"...at the will of the employer, that is. There is no job security whatsoever, and anything you say can and will be held against you.
At the end of the day, Mr. Lawson believed so strongly that he was wrongfully terminated that he filed a lawsuit contending as much. The lawsuit's righteously indignant contention that it was Lawson's "...duty to testify accurately at the NTSB hearing regarding Papillon's unsafe and/or illegal activities that were dangerous to the public welfare as well as to their employees," must have made him wince. "Illegal activities?" Whoa - who said anything about that? Lawson must surely know that he had that very same "duty" to report such conditions prior to being terminated. So I'll take that statement as a little lawyer-generated hyperbole for the moment.
It's easy to cast stones at what we might feel is just another whiny pilot. But for my part, I'll lean on the side of Lawson, especially if the company did find out what he told the NTSB and fired him for it. Don't we deserve any better than that?
10th Dec 2003, 09:23
Wow. There's a whole lot of supposition here, based upon very little in the way of fact. We have only what the media printed, and we all know (or should) how reliable that is, and we have the lawsuit, which in its best light must necessarily say only what the plaintiff wants it to say.
I would be hesitant to take sides or even draw any conclusions given only that information. But here's another question to ponder: If, as reported, "Federal investigators interviewed all Papillon pilots and mechanics about a week after the crash", why were they unable to locate any corroborating evidence, among all those employees? One would expect that, in the face of such a loss, someone else similarly situated would also have felt the burden to the point of mentioning it during the interviews?
10th Dec 2003, 10:52
1) Nobody should be fired for reporting safety issues, but we would hope than an open channel of communication exists between pilot and management to address those concerns in the first place.
2) Given his two year work history, the pilot should have taken action before this catastrophe.
3) The pilot is ultimately responsible for the safey of every flight, and has a duty to ensure that basic FAA standards are met - regardless of written or unwritten company policies.
You correct that my comments are speculative and somewhat inflammatory; nevertheless, you have to look at the history of Papillion's operation. Other accidents have occured at Papillion during this pilot's tenure. What does that tell you?
14th Dec 2003, 13:17
PPF1, I think this may be the first time that I completely agree with you.
RDR, you apparently haven't been flying very long. You'll learn, if you live long enough. The pressure is always there from the company, and you bear as much of it as you can, for as long as you can, because you have to feed yourself and your family. Going home and telling your wife you've quit because the company won't let you have long enough breaks, when the kids need new shoes isn't going to make her happy, so you bear it a little longer. Then a friend gets killed, and you might reach your limit. Or you might not reach it until the second or third friend gets killed. Or you may never reach it, and the other pilots may never reach it. But sometimes, for some people, a straw falls that breaks the camel's back.
You blame the pilot for reporting on the company, but why not blame the company for doing the things that should be reported, and firing the pilots for reporting them? A company that does those things absolutely will not react favorably if the pilot brings them up to management. So the only option is to tell someone outside the company. It's the company's fault the policies are in place, and the company's shame that it fires pilots for opposing those dangerous policies. It's a shame lawsuits have to be filed, but they're the only way to make some companies act responsibly.
And I promise you this; I will never set foot on a tour ride helicopter, not even if you get me commode-hugging, knee-walking, throwing-up-big-chunks-through-the-nose drunk.
15th Dec 2003, 01:00
You blame the pilot for reporting on the company, but why not blame the company for doing the things that should be reported, and firing the pilots for reporting them
I would like to point out that I do NOT blame the pilot for reporting the company's illegal activities; however, I DO blame the pilot for not reporting them sooner. As I stated above, pilots shouldn't be fired for doing so (after exhausting all other avenues).
Nevertheless, the circumstances and TIMING of his reports were definately suspect. I'm not ready to say this pilot is a hero... quite the opposite in my opinion. This thread didn't really discuss the company's behavior and responsibility... probably because it is sooooo obvious that, if the allegations are true, their operations are dubious, wreckless, and illegal to say the least.
15th Dec 2003, 08:13
'Wreckless"? No, the wreck did occur.
I didn't mean to imply that the pilot is a hero. In a perfect world, we would never need to report companies for anything. It isn't a perfect world, and none of us is perfect. May you never have to succomb to company pressure because of worry about keeping a job.
16th Dec 2003, 06:32
Gomer Pylot writes: "And I promise you this; I will never set foot on a tour ride helicopter, not even if you get me commode-hugging, knee-walking, throwing-up-big-chunks-through-the-nose drunk."
Come on out to HAI www.heli-expo.com in March 2004 and we will see if we can start on the initial phase of your tour ride......
19th Dec 2003, 01:47
Normally, I'd stay away from discussions like this, but it hits too close to home. I recently spent three very happy seasons at Papillon, and some of the remarks posted here get me feeling like a smear campaign is under way. Since then, I have moved on, and I am now in no way connected to Papillon other than having friends still working there whose professionalism is being sullied in this case.
I must state at the beginning that I only flew at the South Rim operation, the main base near the village of Tusayan, so what I know about the Las Vegas operation comes from friends and colleagues who flew there, and from a few visits to the place. I do not know, and to the best of my recollection never met, the pilot who filed the suit.
As for maintenance, the aircraft were very well maintained indeed, some old ones had over 20,000 hours on them and were in top shape. Pilot's concerns about aircraft integrity were ALWAYS investigated, and if that meant a flight had to be cancelled, well that's the way it goes. Of course, with over a dozen pilots getting their first turbine experience at Papillon each year, one was expected to consult a senior pilot and a mechanic before putting pen to paper; and squawks like "cockpit clock loses 5 mins. per 24 hours" were not welcomed, but nobody was ever pressed to fly an aircraft they didn't think was safe and legal. Communication and respect between pilots and maintenance was VERY good in my opinion.
About pilot fatigue, it was a factor on hot summer days, but that was expected and watched out for. Due to the curfew over the Canyon, there are only 10 hours per day we can fly anyway, and we ALWAYS got at least a one-hour lunch break. Management pilots covered the line pilots during these breaks. This schedule has always struck me as far more benign than some of what goes on in the GOM. Also, the company's own rules on pilots' days off were rather stricter than those in FAR Part 135.
As for pressure on the pilots to fly despite their own misgivings, all I can say is B-llsh-t. On more than one occasion, I've heard the owner himself state "If you're not comfortable, don't do it. All that'll happen is that six people don't get to see the Canyon today." This was at company gatherings without press or other PR considerations present. I've also seen it in action: anyone who's flown in the Canyon knows how bad the turbulence can get. Well, one day quite a few of us newbies really didn't want to go back out, it was so rough. The Chief Pilot went out and determined it was safe enough, just uncomfortable; however, all of us who didn't feel good about going were excused to go home - without loss of pay I might add - while the CP and several other very experienced chaps flew the rest of the day. there weren't enough of them, so they had to cancel several tour groups too, but nobody batted an eyelid at that.
As to the laying off of the plaintiff in this case, anyone who flew tours in the 2001 season will recall that it was a bad year for business even before Sept 11; that of course put the kibosh on the year completely. So layoffs were coming, and come they did; he certainly wasn't the only pilot let go from Las Vegas at that time. I know, a friend of mine from flight school days was laid off from Papillon Las Vegas at exactly the same time, and he told me he was one of several. What I expect caused some very understandable bad feelings is that the laid-off personnel weren't called to come back when things improved; rather the local management in LV seems to have taken this opportunity to replace anyone they didn't like with their own toadies. This stinks, but with "employment at will" in force, it's not enough to start a grievance procedure against the company.
Which brings me to the last point. The gentleman in question has made his statements in a suit filed against Papillon; therefore his statements are calculated to further the aim of that suit, to get money from Papillon, and should be looked at in that light. In any case, from what I could see in my time there, the Las Vegas FSDO was quite active in their oversight of the aerial tour companies, doing both announced and no-notice inspections; a company culture like the one described in the suit would not have gone unnoticed or been tolerated for long.