05 February 2014

Aeronautics and Moronics in the Carib

How many of you know that the Carib is at the forefront of hot legal issues, as well airplane moronics?

The picture below looks like one of those illusions so easily created by clever camera work, or effective photoshopping. In fact, it is neither. The plane that looks like it is just about to bop the guy on the ­­­­­­­­­­­­­head

is just about to bop the guy on the head.


Reality #1: The prevailing wind in this area is from the east and is pretty constant at 15-25 miles an hour.
Reality #2: Land is scarce on St. Barths.  Flat land is even scarcer.  So when the 1960’s drug runners discovered a goat meadow located between a 150’ high hill and St. Jean Bay, they chased the goats away and landed their planes on the meadow. So was born the St. Barths international airport. 
Realty #3: The goat strip runs west to east, and for aeronautical reasons beyond the scope of this report, almost all plane landings are into the wind, i.e., west to east.
Reality #4:  Normal descents for landing an airplane at normal airports involve the aircraft gradually reducing airspeed, which in turn results in a gradual loss of lift, which in turn results in a gradual loss of altitude, all the while maintaining level flight until the wheels touch ground. Because of Realities numbered 1-4 above, that process is not available in St. Barths.  As a result, incoming planes fly low over the crest of the hill at the west end of the strip, then put the nose down and power down the hill to overcome the lift generated by the 20mph wind reflecting up from the surface of the slope under their wings. The goal is to flare out to level flight at the bottom of the hill and touch down no farther than one third of the way down the runway..  Even though only specially trained pilots may legally land here, sometimes the uplift is so strong the plane first touches down too far down the strip and must power up and go around again. And sometimes the pilot thinks he can stop at the end of the strip, but he miscalculates and rolls off the eastern edge of the concrete apron onto St. Jean Beach. Two years ago, a pilot not only rolled onto the beach but continued for a bit into the bay. The plane was in two feet of water before it stopped. The passengers stepped off the plane into the warm waters of St. Jean Bay.  All smiles. The beach goers applauded.

On the ground, at the top of the approach hill is a traffic circle, with wide shoulders. Tourists hang there to film the approach of the planes that normally can be as low as ten-fifteen feet above the crest of the hill. The picture you see above was snapped by a tourist just as a Winair plane flew over the crest of the hill, where a professional photographer was facing down the hill to shoot the plane as it landed.  Exactly where he was standing is a bit uncertain, but what is clear is the plane’s tire did hit him in the head, he was knocked unconscious and taken by ambulance to the local hospital where he was stitched up and released, whereupon he boogied immediately to Le Select for a cheeseburger and beers, and was the star storyteller of the day. Note to fans: he is definitely on the injured reserve list for next Sunday’s soccer match, and will remain in that status until he can pass the recently promulgated test regarding airplane-inflicted concussions.

What’s this got to do with me?  It reminds of a story, that’s what, and here it is:

Realities 1-4 apply equally to Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgins, about 100 miles north of here. Back in the 60’s, the Rockefeller family’s resort arm built a beautiful hotel on that island, but to get there, one had to fly to neighboring Beef Island, and take a ferry across a rough channel.  The result was the guests arrived the same color as the water over the beautiful reefs surrounding the island— puke green.

To enhance the marketability of this resort, the Rockefellers set out to find a flat piece of land. They were marginally successful and built an airstrip with the same characteristics and vulnerabilities as the one in St. Barths: Planes approached over a western hill and had to deal with strong updrafts while trying to get down and stop on the short runway.

To promote the opening of their new airstrip (which had wisely been dedicated to the Crown,) the employees of the resort announced a “Fly-in” and local pilots were invited to fly in and be treated to a sumptuous lunch at the hotel. And to make the occasion more festive, hotel management, (without consulting the Crown) installed at the eastern perimeter of the strip a series of painted metal flagpoles flying gaily colored pennants. Great idea for a parade, not so much for an airport runway.

The amateur pilots, flying single engine planes and landing at an unfamiliar location, had awful problems fighting the updrafts. One in particular, traveling with his wife and three children (who were scrunched in the baggage space behind the two seats of the small aircraft), struggled with wind, landed too far down the strip, applied power and lifted off to go around again, but a wing tip caught one of the poles, the plane swiveled around the pole and crashed into the rocks and underbrush at the end of the strip.  Both parents were killed on impact, and the three children in back were miraculously thrown clear and suffered minor injuries.  

Paul Weiss was retained to represent the estate of the deceased parents, the executor of which was also the guardian of the three minor children.

Ta dah! Enter Martin London, boy lawyer, who quickly discovered the Rockefeller resort ownership pattern for new hotels: until the properties became profitable, the enterprises were owned individually so losses were directly deductible on the owner’s personal income tax returns. The owner of the resort that planted the poles:  Mr. Lawrence Rockefeller himself.

We sued Mr. R for an appropriate telephone book number. I read every treatise  I could find on airplane cases, read every decision, law review article and bathroom wall scribbling on the subject. None were quite like this.  After all, there was not much doubt about liability, I was not worried about the size of the defendant's insurance policy because I was confident he was good for any size verdict, there was no international compact that limited damages, and my clients were likely to earn the jury's sympathy, whereas the defendant was not.

An investigatory trip to the Virgin Gorda resort (no, they did not know who we were) was richly rewarding. And in Puerto Rico I found newspaper files containing photos, even a video of the crash. Some of the pics were gruesome. I found other pilots who were incipient witnesses. My list was long. All were eager to help. Not a rotten apple in the barrel.

At some point in the legal proceedings, it was time to take the deposition of the defendant.  For my non-lawyer readers, this is a process in which one side gets to ask the other questions about the evidence, and the deponent must respond under oath.  I love that part. But this was a highly unusual situation.  Normally, the questioner tries to elicit the other side's version of the facts, pin him down about what he saw, what he said, what he heard, what he knew, so he cannot change his story at trial. Additionally, the goal is to gather more evidence of whatever nature--indeed all the evidence there is, good and bad.  

But this deposition was a reverse image of that. Mr. Rockefeller was not what you would call a hands-on hotel manager. He was not there on the day of the crash, did not order somebody to plant the poles, indeed did not know anything about the cones,-- err, I mean poles--until after the crash. Uniquely, my job was teach him the facts--what his employees had done, and the consequences thereof to my clients. I asked a lot of "Did you know" questions. I showed him photos and videos of the crash scene, the poles, the crumpled plane with the decedents hanging upside down in their seatbelts,  the injured children being taken away on stretchers, pictures of the family before the crash, etc, etc. I taught him the economics of the decedents’ lives and the devastating impact, emotionally as well as financially, of what his employees had wrought. 

I was prepared for a lot of 'tude. It has been my experience over the years that CEO"s and prominent businessmen strongly resent these sessions.  They come into the deposition room all puffed up, secure in the company of their top-flight impeccably dressed lawyers, and for a while at least, cannot help but convey their baked-in arrogance: their "Why are you bothering an important person like me with this stuff? " attitude. Not to mention that in this instance the kid asking the questions was what my father would call 'a piker', a guy who did not earn in a year what the witness probably earned while sitting there.  I can not recall this witness's demeanor at the start of the deposition, but I do recall that as the session proceeded, he was attentive, courteous, and entirely professional.  What's more,  I thought he was ultimately staggered by what he learned that day, and he left the table not only a more knowledgeable person, but importantly, a more humble one as well.

Not long after that “teaching” deposition, his lawyers called with a an offer that made my head spin. After relatively brief negotiations, the case was settled for a sum that I and the executor both considered more than fair. I have no memory of the number, and wouldn’t repeat it here if I did.

Friends, I am happy to report to you that there are no metal poles at the end of the St. Barths runway, and while some may elect to change into their bathing suits before boarding the rubber band planes that fly from St. Maarten to St. Barths, the water is warm.  

Just stay off the mountain top and...

Come on down!

A bientot.