Expert Witnesses in civil Aviation trials.

Builders,

Let me expose you to a side of aviation that you are not likely to read about in our industry publications. I have worked in this industry for more than 20 years. I have done a number of different jobs and have a broad group of friends who also work inside our industry. I have access to more information that most people in homebuilding. One facet of homebuilding that is very rarely spoken of, but known to people working in the industry is the case of the “Expert Witness.”

Below, I am going to cover three different examples of this. The first two of the men are deceased, the third is not. I have extensively read the works of all three men, and I met two of them in person. The comments I make here are not hearsay nor are they hangar stories. This is valid information, not internet comments from a mystery email name.

I am not questioning that all three of these men made contributions to homebuilding. The only point I am making here is that each of these men have been part of a much less attractive side of aviation, one that it rarely spoken of. Each of these men have their fans. However, very few of these fans are aware that their heroes engaged in behaviour that many rank and file homebuilders would consider to range from unproductive to unethical. Speaking for myself, I think that the damage done to our industry by the actions of these men acting for their own financial profit far outweighed any good they ever did.

The important point that I would like traditional homebuilders to understand and take away is simple. All three of these men wrote books that are often cited in homebuilding circles. Each of these books has sections that purport to be grave warnings about terrible flaws in aircraft designs in aviation. Riblett wrote large diatribes about ‘dangerious airfoils.” Hollmann attacked the structural design and flutter characteristics of numerous aircraft. Finch wrote extensively on aircraft fires and how poor planes were. I cannot comment on how strongly any of these men felt about these topics, but I will tell you that each of these men aggressively pursued legal positions on these subjects so they could hire themselves out as industry experts in some very expensive and damaging lawsuits, including the highest one ever paid out.

Many people new to homebuilding are concerned about potentially dangerous things. This is normal. However, each of the above men implied that they were impartial servants of aviation safety sharing the truth with fellow homebuilders for the good of aviation. Read all the links, google each man’s name and the words ‘aviation lawsuit,’ and make up your own mind. After you do this you may very well decide that things you previously assumed were truth, said for good reasons, may be little more than a profiteer’s ploy to abuse the legal system. I went through this very transformation myself. I never looked at the work of these men the same way again. Give some thought to the fact that most aviation editors who have been around for 10 years could have written this story, but evidently none of them did.

Homebuilders need real information to make good decisions on. It is ok for people with a particular issue to be passionate about it. My point is that if they guy is hiding the fact that his passionate tone is largely driven by the potential for an incredibly high payday, than the process is inherently deceitful. People should speak the truth about mistakes, and they should do it in the court room if it comes to that. But I have zero respect for anyone whose opinion on safety is for sale to a high bidder, and I hold a very special contempt for people who engage in any practice that has the byproduct of making Americans more fearful. To the extent that the comments of these three men made aviators afraid to fly aircraft that had long been proven to be within acceptable risk levels, and they made a profit at this, they were acting in the same capacity as terrorists. Think that over, review how the work of these men may have made you personally afraid of an airfoil, a design, or a Cessna fuel system,  before just disagreeing with it.

Harry Riblett passed away recently. He wrote on airfoils, and a number of experimental aircraft use his airfoils. He sold a book for 20 years that proposed a series of computer generated airfoils. I own and have read his book in its entirety many times. I also got my aerodynamics training at Embry-Riddle from some very well-respected professors. Let me throw in that I have built and flown an aircraft that used one of Riblett airfoils. The man made some good points, and most people in aerodynamics generally follow the things he said. Here is the disconnect: Riblett was very prone to stating things very dramatically, throwing around terms like ‘dangerious’ and ‘killer’ throughout his writing. He was a guy who always liked a good conspiracy theory, and he had a claim that much of the work of NACA was flawed, and their wind tunnel work was inaccurate. He did this while never using more than a basic computer to model the performance of his own airfoils. He wrote a lot of press releases to national media blaming the FAA for certifying aircraft with particular airfoils. I doubt he made a ton of money selling is book, and I know of no designer that paid him a significant royalty for his airfoil. I believe that the book sales were aimed at providing a flow of small money while establishing his position as an “industry expert.”  In this capacity he was available to law firms specializing in aircraft accidents. (Yes, these exist, they will show up when you google search the terms.) Just for starters, in your own personal search for more information, start at this link:

http://www.airlaw.com/Press-Releases/Archive/Wolk-repeatedly-warned-Cessna,-FAA-and-NTSB-of-icing-problems_27.asp

While Riblett had some points on leading edge radius, it is nothing that is revolutionary or new. I am not a particularly talented pilot, but I have a lot of time flying an airfoil he classified as a ‘killer.’ Today, I think that Riblet may have started out well intended, but he became willing to grossly overstate things to put himself in the position of being a very well paid expert witness.  In my opinion, the good he accomplished lives under the shadow of this, and his work can not be considered objective because of it.

Martin Hollmann has also recently died. He was an accomplished aeronautical engineer. For all of his good talents, he worked the legal system to his own personal profit more than any single person I have met in aviation. He was very famous for offering to hire out his ‘expertise’ to either side of a debate. He would often offer to defend a manufacturers design that was facing trouble. Many of the designers who took him up on this did so because they correctly understood that Hollmann was fully willing to represent the people who may have a suit saying the design was flawed. By hiring him, he could no longer be on the potential plaintiff’s witness list. The manufacturers knew this and would pay this form of blackmail. If you search the internet you will find that Hollmann didn’t wait for people to come look for him. He wrote countless posts to internet groups that were thinly veiled proposals for suits. He often was hired by wealthy builders to find a fix for the “flaw” that Hollmann “discovered” in their kit’s design.  Consider the single quote of Hollmann’s below. The only designer he was afraid to cross paths with was Rutan. I really doubt it was out of respect, I have a strong feeling that it was because he knew that Rutan was a fighter, and would not fold up like a lawn chair in a contest of lawsuits.

 “I consider Mr. Rutan an ambitious and prolific aircraft designer willing to take risks to explore new designs. Such people must be encouraged and supported if we are going to advance the state of the art. If I did not feel that way, I would not have turned down an offer from attorneys to work on behalf of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Mr. Rutan in the canard Microlight aircraft accident in which the owner and test pilot of this aircraft were killed.”

If you do your own reading, you will find countless cases of Hollman being involved in legal action or selling his services or testimony to people involved in legal action. Again. I am not suggesting that the man didn’t know the topic, I am saying that he was willing to sell this to a high bidder, even if he had to fan the flames of conflict or doubt to drive up the value of his expertise.

Some one is going to write me and say “he couldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.”  This very pleasant elementary school ideal does not apply to expert witness testimony. Read on and you will find that under US law, “absolute immunity extends to acts or statements of experts which arise in the course of or preliminary to judicial proceedings.” and “Under California law, no lawsuit alleging negligence against a licensed engineer may proceed without the expert opinion of an independent engineer.” There are some valid reasons for both of the above, but they have long since been lost by the system that pays tremendous amounts of money to expert witnesses.

Many people were given a favorable opinion of Hollmann by reading his books, but most of his positive exposure came from Kitplanes magazine under the 18 year editorship of Dave Martin. There was nothing Hollmann ever did that got less than a glowing review by Martin. Hollann’s design “The Stallion” was hailed as the greatest of kits in the era of the high-end kit. In spite of this, only a small handful of the planes were ever finished. Martin’s infatuation with Hollmann was not deterred by Hollman’s legal activities, nor his personality. At times Hollmann was polite, even patient with anyone who he suspected was an emerging member of his fan club. On the other hand, many people found him to be incredibly arrogant, without the slightest trace of humility. As you read his work, factor this in: Hollmann was a German, he certainly believed that some people were superior to others, and he was very fond of pointing out that his father was a Nazi scientist. He was the kind of German who never understood why many Americans didn’t find that something to be proud of.

Richard Finch is well-known in Experimental aircraft circles for writing a book called “Auto engines for experimental aircraft” This was one of the very first books I read on experimental aviation, and I found it very motivational. Finch was also very well-known in Corvair car circles for writing a guide on “keeping your Corvair alive.” He also wrote a number of articles on auto engines experimental aircraft magazines. Ten years after reading Finch’s books, I had done a tremendous amount of work on alternative engines of all types. Not just Corvairs, but with V-8 Lancairs also. I had actively researched lots of conversions, including flying with Steve Wittman in his Olds V-8 Tailwind. I came to understand that almost none of the aircraft it Finch’s book had flown, and that he had not personally ever flown behind a Corvair, nor many of the other engines in the books he wrote. Seen through experienced eyes, his relentless claims that car engines were always lighter and more reliable than certified ones seemed dangerously unrealistic, if not outright wrong. I met Finch in person the first time in 1999 at a Corvair car convention. I quietly asked him if he had flow a Corvair. In a speech reminiscent of Waldo Pepper saying “Quiet, Let’s not disconcert the masses” he confirmed that he had never flown a Corvair despite his books offering the reverse impression.

One of the constant themes in Finch’s books is that aircraft fuel systems as we know them are all poorly made and are the root cause of post crash fires. His books compare them to the ones in race cars, conveniently ignoring the differences in application. It seemed something of a mystery what he expected homebuilders to do with his criticisms. He showed pictures of car fuel cells but didn’t address how they would be put in the shapes of planes. A little known book of Finches on fire safety in planes, hardly more than a glorified pamphlet on the topic, was specifically written on the fire topic. I saw it once in the Embry Riddle library. It had never been checked out. The purpose of the book was made plain later.

In 2002 I had barely recovered from my crash a year earlier, and I was still covered in fresh skin grafts. At Oshkosh, Finch approached me and said that I was obviously barely able to work and he had a way for me to make a good paycheck in aviation. I listened incredulously as he said he had been well paid to be an expert about fires in this lawsuit where Cessna lost $480 million dollars:

http://archives.californiaaviation.org/ganews/msg09707.html

Finch explained that I could get a years pay in a few hours of testimony. The fact I was an aircraft mechanic and had been burned over half my body made me valuable, and I could get real good money. The comments in his books about how poorly designed certified fuel systems are were now in a different light; The book on fire safety was just there as a qualification, it was never intended to be useful. Looking at Finch’s books, the introductions tout his qualifications, including a highly suspicious claim that he was an engineer on the space shuttle. (Finch is the only person I have ever met that claimed to be an engineer who didn’t know what vector addition is.) I could now picture this being read off by a personal injury attorney as an impressed jury listened.

I told Finch that I thought the whole concept of  testifying for money was immoral. I told him that if I thought Cessna made bad planes I would say so for free, but not for money. I was not a prostitute. I had 6 lawyers contact me about trying to sue the pilot who crashed my plane. They all pointed out that the man was an investment banker. I had told every one of them to “drop dead” because it had been an honest mistake, and he man was genuinely sorry about it. This perspective was as perplexing to Finch as his expert witness job was to me.

In 2006 Finch bought a 601XL and decided he was going to put a Corvair on it. On the internet few people knew who he was, and the often politely steered him to our webpage. This was hard for him to take. He purchased a motor mount and a number of other parts from us. While waiting for a backordered $59 part, Finch used this as a premise to write 3 different five-page emails to the management of the EAA suggesting that I be fired from EAA publications and that I be banned from commercial displays at Oshkosh. I had a very good look at what he did in aviation for real money, and he was concerned that I might “disconcert the masses.” It was a long cycle from picking up Finch’s book in the library 16 years earlier.

.

The point of these three stories is to get real home builders to stop and consider some of the things they have been told. Many (but not all) aviation writers who had a strong axe to grind were actually doing so to develop their position as a paid witness. Be careful who you are willing to elevate to the level ‘expert’, not all of these people have the advancement of aviation and the pursuit of the facts as sole motivation. -ww

About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at www.FlyCorvair.com and in more than 50 magazine articles.

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