The first flight of 8-year-old Caryn Stewart's life was supposed to be a quick sightseeing tour over eastern Iowa in her uncle's four-seat Piper Cherokee.
Nervous and excited, she sat quietly behind her mother and next to her sister as Andy Bryan, a cousin, drove the single-engine plane down Runway 17 at George L. Scott Municipal Airport.
The airplane elevated briefly and plunged into a field where it exploded into flames. Caryn suffered severe burns that scarred her torso, back, arms, legs and face. Her mother, cousin and 11-year-old sister were killed, part of a massive and growing death toll from small-aircraft crashes.
Manufacturing companies and federal investigators would say Bryan lost control of the Piper on that Easter Sunday in 2005. But company documents and government records pointed to a different cause: a faulty carburetor that the manufacturer later urged airplane owners to remove because it was causing engine failures.
Nearly 45,000 people have been killed over the past five decades in private planes and helicopters — almost nine times the number that have died in airline crashes — and federal investigators have cited pilots as causing or contributing to 86% of private crashes. But a USA TODAY investigation shows repeated instances in which crashes, deaths and injuries were caused by defective parts and dangerous designs, casting doubt on the government's official rulings and revealing the inner workings of an industry hit so hard by legal claims that it sought and won liability protection from Congress.
Wide-ranging defects have persisted for years as manufacturers covered up problems, lied to federal regulators and failed to remedy known malfunctions, USA TODAY found. Some defective parts remained in use for decades — and some are still in use — because manufacturers refused to acknowledge or recall the suspect parts or issued a limited recall that left dangerous components in hundreds of aircraft.
The manufacturers involved paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements that received little or no public attention until now and that need not be disclosed to federal regulators. In addition, civil-court judges and juries have found major manufacturers such as Cessna Aircraft, Robinson Helicopter, Mitsubishi Aircraft, Bell Helicopter and Lycoming Engines liable for deadly crashes, ordering them to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.
The verdicts contradict findings of the National Transportation Safety Board, which conducts limited investigations into most crashes of private aircraft and asks manufacturers to look for defects in their parts, even if the manufacturers are being sued over a crash.
Judges and juries have spent weeks hearing cases that took years to prepare and unearthed evidence that NTSB investigations never discovered.
A Florida judge, finding that Cessna had known for "many years" of a potentially lethal defect in thousands of planes but hadn't fixed it, wrote in 2001 that the company could be guilty of "a reckless disregard for human life equivalent to manslaughter."
A USA TODAY review of tens of thousands of pages of internal company records, lawsuits and government documents found defects implicated in a series of fatal crashes of small planes and helicopters. The deadly defects include:
- Helicopter fuel tanks that easily rupture and ignite, causing scores of people to be burned alive after low-impact crashes that were otherwise survivable; ''a reckless disregard for human life equivalent to manslaughter'' Fla. judge in 2001 on Cessna's actions.
- Pilot seats that suddenly slide backward, making airplanes nose-dive when pilots lose grip of the controls.
- Ice-protection systems that fail to keep airplane wings clean during flight and fail to warn pilots of dangerous ice buildup that causes crashes.
- Helicopter blades that flap wildly in flight and separate from the mast or cut through the helicopter tail.
- Airplane exhaust systems that leak exhaust gas, causing engine fires.
- Carburetors such as the one in the Iowa crash that flood or starve engines and had been causing midair engine failures since at least 1963 when the federal government notified the manufacturer of "a serious problem" with its carburetor that had caused a recent fatal crash.
Manufacturers say crashes are caused by pilot errors, aircraft neglect or owners' failure to follow manufacturer bulletins urging part replacements.
After the Iowa crash, engine maker Lycoming and carburetor maker Precision Airmotive blamed the pilot in the face of a lawsuit by Caryn Stewart's father and uncle. In April 2013, after a judge rejected both companies' requests to throw out the case, the companies paid the two men a $19 million settlement, court records show.
Ruling against Lycoming and Precision, Philadelphia Judge Matthew Carrafiello found evidence both might be culpable. Precision had received more than 100 warranty claims concerning carburetor defects, the judge said, and Lycoming continued to use the carburetors even though it "knew of ongoing problems" with the carburetors "and of numerous plane crashes resulting from such problems."
None of that information was included in the NTSB investigation, which was aided by Lycoming and Precision and blamed Andy Bryan, the pilot, for "failure to abort the takeoff" and "failure to maintain adequate airspeed during takeoff."
"It was just like a conviction when they said that," said Greg Bryan, Andy's father and the airplane owner. "That's your son's legacy — our family's legacy — that we did something to cause this terrible accident."