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Ronald Goldman: The Flying Attorney's View on Helicopter Crashes

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Los Angeles, CAWithout a doubt, Ronald Goldman is one of America's definitive experts on aviation law. A lawyer, a pilot, a professor and a pioneer in the field of aviation law, Goldman is the lead attorney in the aviation law department of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei and Goldman based in Los Angeles.

Lawyers and Settlements asked Goldman to comment on the recent spike in the number of helicopter crashes in the US, and to reflect on some of the defining moments in the field of aviation law over the last 40 years.

Calm, cool and methodical, Goldman recalls what he describes as "an earth shaking event" in the world of aviation. It happened in June 1972—the age of jet travel was just taking off.

A Trident jet, manufactured by Hawker Siddeley, crashed and burned 90 seconds after takeoff at London's Heathrow airport. "All 118 aboard the British European Airways flight died in what was at the time the worst commercial plane disaster in aviation history," says Goldman.

People suddenly became aware that the miracle of aviation could also cause calamity on an epic scale. They realized too that when errors are made, people would be held accountable.

The Trident disaster was one of Goldman's earliest aviation litigation cases. He represented the families of the Dutch nationals killed in the crash.

Aviation law was a bit of black hole 40 years ago, recalls Goldman. "Back in the 1960s, lawyers had to borrow from automobile law and from other more prosaic kinds of legal notions," says Goldman. "We were struggling to find out how we would apply those principles to aviation."

"The Trident case was a very complex case," says Goldman. "There were issues around the mental health and leadership abilities of the captain of the plane, there were issues around the design of the plane. The co-pilot, in the past, had been criticized for reacting slowly in a crisis."

As an adjunct professor of law at California's Pepperdine University for more than 20 years, Goldman has often used the Trident crash as an example of early and complex aviation law. One of the interesting aspects of the crash was the design of the cockpit. "The 'slats-out-of-position' indictor lights, which would have warned of the stall, were located on a pedestal behind the pilots where the pilots couldn't see it," says Goldman.

Although much has changed in aviation and in aviation law, Goldman says that preparing for an aviation crash case is not hugely different in 2008. "Those black boxes and data flight recorders are more sophisticated now and more likely to survive the crash," says Goldman.

"Part of the case we eventually present will depend on the information we get from the flight recorders," says Goldman, "But we also do good old fashioned gumshoe investigation.

"The process of getting documents, finding out the history of the plane, looking at the design; we still go through all those steps."

The Baum, Hedlund, Aristei and Goldman team has handled dozens and dozens of aviation litigation cases. It regularly uses accident reconstruction specialists, usually done by former Transportation Safety experts. "No major aviation case goes to trial without video reconstruction, animation and sometimes actual footage of the accident, or even cell phone pictures," says Goldman.

Goldman has been a licensed pilot for almost 30 years, and although he believes you do not have to have done time in the cockpit to be a good aviation lawyer, "It is definitely an advantage."

Over the last eight months, there has been what can almost be described as an epidemic of emergency helicopter crashes. "There have been more medical helicopter crashes in the last several months than we have had all told in some years," says Goldman.

From his perspective, Goldman sees several reasons for the alarming number of accidents. "We have an aging fleet. We are running helicopters that are 20 years old and no matter how well maintained they are, those helicopters are beyond their life cycle," he says.

He also sees pilot stress as a factor. It may be that emergency helicopter pilots are simply flying too many hours. "These guys operate under tremendous pressure," says Goldman, "They know they've got a life they have to save, and they've got to get into places they've never been before. They have to make a lot of judgments along the way."

It could be that the number of hours they fly should be reduced because they are doing a different kind of flying. "The kind of stress they have is different than the kind of stress there is for a pilot who flies the same route everyday," says Goldman.

Additional equipment, believes Goldman, could also prevent crashes. "A lot of these happen at night," says Goldman. "Helicopter pilots should be trained to wear night vision goggles, and helicopters should be equipped with collision avoidance systems. Emergency medical helicopters should not be crashing just because they are performing the mission for which they are intended."

With so many helicopters in the air and routinely landing and taking off from
hospitals and other locations, Goldman sees a need for a coordinated dispatch system. "Company A has to talk to Company B" says Goldman.

"Why don't they start using the available technology?" asks Goldman.

Ronald Goldman is a partner in Baum, Hedlund, Aristei and Goldman and a Board Certified Civil Trial Lawyer, Certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. He developed a course on Aviation Accident Law for Pepperdine University in California where he was an adjunct professor. He is also a member of the Lawyer-Pilots Bar Association. He graduated from the University of Southern California, receiving a Bachelor of Science in Law in 1960 and his J.D. in 1962.

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