Aviation crashes are among the most complex cases to litigate. Because of the myriad factors involved in their investigation, as well as the high profile nature of the official cause, small contributing factors that could have mitigated the losses incurred are often lost in the shuffle.
Pilot error, mechanical failure, lack of maintenance, and air traffic control miscues are simple enough to detect and act upon. But many other issues can contribute.
Perhaps the most significant of these is a lack of provisions for passenger and crew survival after an accident takes place. Television coverage of crashes near cities and towns would distort our perceptions of aviation incidents as taking place within a few yards of qualified assistance.
The reality is that many air crashes take place in remote areas, where emergency survival kits are a critical component of the occupants' odds of surviving the crash.
The NTSB concurs. The report on an Alaska crash highlights the need for functional, well-equipped survival kits and states the incumbent need for the pilot to instruct passengers on its presence and use.
The value of this equipment is seen in several factors, each of which can dramatically enhance the speed with which a crash site is located, the durability of occupants, and subsequently the prospects of survival.
Trauma CareSeemingly minor injuries that can be quickly treated by untrained people can prove fatal if not addressed. Survival kits must be stocked with enough medical supplies to ensure that passengers with bleeding injuries can be treated immediately and will not die of blood loss before help arrives.
Fire SuppressionPost-crash fires are often thought of as infernos that erupt on impact, with no time for occupants to react. But that's not always the case.
Just as a minor injury can become deadly if not treated right away, the smallest post-crash fire can quickly escalate and kill trapped or injured occupants. A fire extinguisher should be on board for any flight.
Protection from ElementsAny seasoned airline passenger knows to dress for the weather at the destination, not the departure. A downed craft provides little shelter or warmth after a crash, so blankets and other protection from cold temperatures and precipitation must be aboard.
Hydration and NourishmentFew plane crashes go undetected for so long that starvation is an issue, but occupants can quickly become dehydrated at a crash site, particularly if weather is adverse or if the occupants are elderly, very young, or in fragile health. A reasonable supply of water and some simple, nonperishable foods should be provided.
Ability to Signal For HelpAgain, perception is in conflict with reality here. A major event like a helicopter crash would seem to be visible to witnesses for miles, but terrain, darkness, and weather can obscure the view.
Craft that come to rest in heavy vegetation can be very difficult to see even under fair weather search conditions. Low-tech signaling devices that require little of a survivor's energy, such as mirrors and whistles, should be included in safety kits to ensure that even a weak or injured occupant can attempt to attract help.
CommunicationsRemote areas can prove impossible for effective cellular coverage. Any pilot undertaking a flight whose path that ventures over very isolated areas should plan to have a satellite phone aboard. Aviation radios can easily be damaged and rendered useless by a crash, so a means of communication that is independent of the craft itself should be on board and fully charged.
While pilots, mechanics, controllers, and plane owners have a responsibility to make every effort to prevent accidents, they are also obligated to be prepared to maximize survivability and communications after an incident. Litigants and counsel should be aware of the potential breach of this obligation when preparing legal action.