By Jason Whitely / WFAA-TV (with input from Ladd Sanger)
DALLAS – Snapshots show the crumpled frame of a Cessna Caravan airplane as it sits among a shattered forest of pine trees. Viewing the pictures, it’s easy to see why no one survived.
For friends and loved ones of the four victims who died, images of the impact stir up a haunting thought.
“These guys were in this plane and there was no amount of screaming out to God or anything they believed in,” said Kevin Rumsey, a friend of one of the victims. “And they had to ride it fifteen seconds or so straight down knowing that you’re over.”
In 2002, the four North Texans died when their brand new propeller plane fell out the sky near Flagstaff, Arizona on a cold November day.
Brad Galaway and his three co-workers were on their way home from Las Vegas.
“It didn’t have to happen,” said Rumsey, Galaway’s best friend.
In the official accident investigation, the NTSB blamed the pilot, among other things, for the crash. They concluded he should not have continued to fly in icy weather.
But when attorneys for the victims’ families started digging into the case they made a worrisome discovery.
The plane’s flight manual, they claim, did not warn pilots to activate the Caravan’s deicing system until after enough ice had built up on the wings to cause them to lose lift, which was too late.
So, how did the deicing system get approved for flight?
Turns out, the FAA lets Cessna’s own employees sign off on things like this in the government’s absence. It’s perfectly legal. In fact, all aircraft manufacturers, even Boeing, do the same thing.
But, it might lead to a tough decision for some employees, said Ladd Sanger, a Dallas aviation attorney for Slack & Davis, LLP.
“He wouldn’t have a job if he didn’t find that aircraft safe,” Sanger said. “If he came back and found this aircraft isn’t safe, how long would the manufacturer keep him on the payroll or how long would he be their representative?”
The FAA calls these people designees. Nationwide, there are approximately 11,000 of them.
While designees have been around for decades, they are little known outside the aviation industry. The FAA delegates authority to them because it doesn’t have enough inspectors to do the jobs themselves.
But at a time when the FAA is reeling from criticism that its inspectors are too cozy with airlines like Southwest, Sanger said the decades old designee program represents a bigger conflict of interest for the FAA.
“When you have the manufacturer having their employee saying the product is safe that is an inherent conflict of interest,” Sanger said. “That is the fox guarding the henhouse if there ever was a scenario.”
The crash involving the four North Texans was not the first time a Cessna Caravan has gone down because of ice.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, 37 people died in similar icing incidents on the Cessna Caravan from 2001 to 2004.
In a videotaped deposition News 8 reviewed, Wendell Corneil, Cessna’s FAA designee who approved the Caravan’s deicing system, admitted his employers might withhold important information that could affect safety.
“I want to know what people have told you within the company about why there are so many accidents involving the Cessna [Caravan] in icing conditions,” an attorney asked.
Corneil paused before saying, “Nobody has.”
“Did you ever ask?” the attorney shot back.
“No,” Corneil replied.
In 2005, the Government Accountability Office, which is the investigating arm of Congress, examined the management of the FAA’s designee program.
The GAO found inconsistent oversight was a weakness.
While the FAA refused an on-camera interview, a FAA spokesperson said they have cleaned up its act, reviewing the entire system like the GAO suggested.
“Conflicts of interest are rare, so few you could count them on your hands,” the spokesperson said.
“They should be constantly vigilant on whether there’s a conflict of interest,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, (D) Dallas. “And it’s easy for that to arise.”
But Johnson, who oversees the FAA on the House Aviation subcommittee, said lawmakers might be partly to blame.
“As we have placed pressure [on the FAA], we have also seen senior staff leave because they are so frustrated because they don’t have the people or the money as they know they should,” he said.
“What the public should take away from this story is that just because a product is governmentally certified does not mean that it’s safe,” said Sanger.
In court, Cessna initially denied any wrongdoing. The Wichita, Kansas-based aircraft manufacturer did not immediately return News 8 calls for comment.
It is reportedly redesigning the Caravan’s deicing system to prevent any future ice build up during flight.
But Sanger said neither the FAA nor Cessna has ordered the same retrofit on more than a thousand earlier models still flying, ones like the plane Galaway was on in 2002.
Families of the North Texas victims settled their case with Cessna out of court for an undisclosed amount of money.
But even now, more than five years later, Rumsey said he hasn’t stopped thinking of Galaway’s final moments and continues to worry whether other designee mistakes have yet to be discovered.