Crash After a Single Engine Take-off in a Piper Aztec is not an “Accident”

On August 24, 2009, the Canadian pilot of a twin engine Piper Aztec flew from North Carolina to Southern Ontario.  To clear customs, the pilot made a stop in Brantford, Ontario.  After the Canadian Border Services Agents did not arrive, the pilot decided to fly the short remaining leg to his farm.

The pilot started the left engine, but had difficulty starting the right.  He shut down the aircraft and attempted to find the problem.  Eventually he determined that the right engine was not going to start.  He considered his options and decided to attempt a take-off with only one engine.

The pilot started his take-off roll.  After the wheels of the aircraft lost contact with the ground, the asymmetrical thrust created by the left engine caused the aircraft to yaw to the right toward a cornfield and trees adjacent to the airport. Unfortunately, the left wing hit a tree and the plane cartwheeled into the corn field.  Remarkably, the pilot escaped uninjured, though the aircraft was damaged beyond repair.

The pilot was charged under Section 7.7 of the Aeronautics Act for “operating an aircraft in such a reckless or negligent manner that endangered or likely endangered the life or property of any person”.

The pilot made an insurance claim for the loss of the aircraft, but the insurer denied coverage on the basis that the damage was caused not by an “accident” but through a conscious, reckless decision that took the risk outside of the insurance policy.  The pilot commenced an action against the insurer arguing that they improperly denied coverage.  The court considered whether the damage occurred as a result of an “accident” or as a result of “calculated, reckless behavior”.

The purpose of insurance is to cover a “fortuitous event” or “accident” and not events that are caused by one’s own intentional actions.  For example, a home owner is not entitled to collect on a fire insurance policy if they set the fire themselves.  Based on the pilot’s actions of willfully attempting a single-engine take-off, it was the insurer’s position that the damage was not the result of an “accident”.

The pilot argued that nothing in the aircraft’s “Pilot’s Operating Handbook” prohibited a single-engine take-off.  However, he admitted in cross-examination that because the right engine was not operating, he was unable to perform certain pre-take-off checks and run-up tests of the right engine.  In addition, he agreed that the emergency procedures in the Pilot’s Operating Handbook required that if an engine failure occurs during the take-off run, the pilot was required to stop the aircraft.

The court found that the evidence of recklessness was “simply overwhelming”:

  • the pre-take-off check list requires that both engines be started;
  • the emergency procedures are that if an engine failure occurs during the take-off run, the aircraft should be stopped on the runway;
  • the pilot testified that he could have safely stopped the aircraft before lift-off; and
  • the pilot had never attempted a single-engine take-off previously.

Based on the above, the court found that the denial of the insurance coverage was warranted and that “What happened … was not an accident. It was negligence.”

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