Noel v. United Aircraft Corporation

Decision Date09 July 1963
Docket NumberNo. 1781.,1781.
Citation219 F. Supp. 556
PartiesRuth M. NOEL et al., Libellants, v. UNITED AIRCRAFT CORPORATION, Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Delaware

Murray M. Schwartz, Wilmington, Del., Stephen M. Feldman and Joseph G. Feldman, (of Feldman, Feldman & Feldman), Philadelphia, Pa., for libellants.

William Prickett, (of Prickett & Prickett), Wilmington, Del., for respondent.

LAYTON, District Judge.

On June 20, 1956, at 3:18 A.M., a Super Constellation Airplane (hereafter called AMS) owned by Linea Aeropostal Venezolana (hereafter called LAV), a Venezuelan airline, left Idlewild Airport on a non-stop flight to Maiquetia, Venezuela. Aboard was a full complement of passengers and crew including several extra crewmen. At 4:30 A.M., AMS signaled Idlewild that it was returning to New York with Engine #2 "off."1 At 5:29 A.M., with New York in sight, AMS wired for and received permission to dump fuel. After several seconds, it burst into an orange ball of fire, veered sharply to the right, descended, appeared to gain altitude and then nosed over and dove, exploding upon impact with the sea. The crash occurred about 30 miles off Asbury Park, New Jersey.2 All aboard including libellants' testate, Mr. Noel, were lost. This negligence action3 in Admiralty based upon the Death on the High Seas Act (46 U.S.C.A. § 761 et seq.) followed.


According to libellants' theory, the accident happened in this fashion. Shortly before 4:24 A.M., an overspeed developed in the #2 engine. That is to say, the propeller was turning at a rate beyond the maximum for which it was designed to rotate.4 The pilot was unable to feather5 the propeller and elected to return to New York. Libellants further assert that the severe strain, due to the windmilling propeller, upon the turbine and other component engine parts resulted in a disintegration of the engine parts. This was followed by a decoupling which left the propeller and shaft windmilling at high speed completely independent of the engine from which the propeller shaft had decoupled. All this disintegration of parts built up a terrific heat and fire inside the engine which could not have been seen because of the very tight fit of the engine cowling over the engine. At about this time, say libellants, the pilot had received permission to dump fuel. Just after the fuel dump chutes were opened, the propeller completely separated from the engine, wobbled off in a right-hand direction, whirling and cutting through the left-hand side of the fuselage at about the # 4 seat position, severing all controls and cutting completely through part of seat #4. This separation released the hot gasses and fire inside the engine, resulting in a magnesium fire on the engine cone. The flames and hot gasses from this fire were swept back over the wing of AMS in a fraction of a second into the plumes of gasoline being released from the tanks, causing a ball of fire, subsequent explosion and the crash of the plane.

As an alternative theory, or perhaps simultaneously, libellants say the #2 propeller which cut through the seat also cut through the floor immediately below the seat and into a "belly" tank of gasoline just below the floor. This tank was nearly empty and, thus, full of dangerous fumes. The gashing of this metal tank by the metal propeller admitted air into the fumes and at the same time created sparks which exploded the tank and set fire to the gas plumes as well as the tank itself.

It should be observed at this point that the case at bar is not against LAV, the airline, or Lockheed, the manufacturer of the plane, but, rather, against United Aircraft Corporation (Hamilton Standard Division, hereafter called United), the manufacturer of the propellers, upon the following theories:

(1) That United failed to use due care in not sooner designing and developing safety devices which would either limit uncontrolled overspeeds or insure a means of feathering following an uncontrolled overspeed.
(2) In the alternative, that United failed to warn LAV of the danger of an overspeeding propeller and, thus, the desirability of having certain allegedly available safety devices.

In summary, libellants contend that no matter what actually took place after the initial overspeed, it was the overspeed and inability to feather which set in motion the events culminating in the loss of AMS, and but for which the accident would never have happened.


United defends on several grounds. First, while admitting the possibility that the accident happened as charged, it contends that libellants fell far short of proving it by a preponderance of the evidence. Second, it takes the position that no one knows just how the accident happened and that libellants' version is but one of a number of possibilities including,

(1) Gasoline leakage in the starboard wing followed by an explosion blowing off the wing.
(2) An unexplained fire on the starboard side of the fuselage clearly observed by the personnel of the Coast Guard escort plane.

United, also, denies negligence on either of the grounds charged.


Preliminary to any step by step analysis of the chronological occurrences preceding this accident, one must have some basic understanding of the dangers inherent in a prolonged engine overspeed followed by an inability to feather the propeller.

In general, the expert testimony for both sides agreed that any prolonged overspeed in excess of 3600 RPM (and probably less) is exceedingly dangerous because of the strong likelihood of disintegration of the engine and its component parts (LX 67), decoupling6 and fire (RP 1825; 2929; 2548; 2176; 2177; Appendix).7 Fire in flight is the greatest dread of an airline pilot. (RP 2924; 2927). A decoupling may be followed by a complete separation of the propeller,8 that is to say, following the decoupling, the propeller shaft (to which the propeller hub and blades are connected) being entirely disconnected from the engine permits the propeller to windmill at an uncontrolled speed merely because of the wind pressure across the blades. At this juncture, the propeller shaft may snap and the propeller hub and blades fly off or separate. (RP 1825; 2548).

Since the overspeed on AMS happened at about 19,000 ft. and lasted approximately fifty minutes, there is the strong probability that all of these dangerous conditions prevailed on AMS (LX 67). Even a layman can readily appreciate the critical danger resulting from a three-bladed propeller, 15 feet in diameter, attached to a heavy metal hub, suddenly whirling free of the plane at, say, 3000 R.P.M. The course the propeller will take is completely random (RP 3189). It may drop straight away and down as in the Cut Bank incident (LX 66);9 or to the side, catching in the nacelle of the neighboring engine and doing no harm as in the Shannon incident (RX 30); or cut through the top of the fuselage itself as in the Memphis incident (LX 142).10 However, one may imagine the terrifying consequences of a propeller separating and ripping directly through the fuselage into the cabin, in which case bodies would be mangled, controls and electrical wiring severed, a huge gash or hole made in the fuselage and possibly gas tanks penetrated and fired or exploded. Moreover, separation of the propeller will, in turn, permit air directly into the motor thus causing fire, if, in fact, there is not fire already caused by the intense heat due to the friction and disintegration of the motor. (RP 694; Appendix.)

Returning, for a moment, to the possibility of a decoupling in this case, there seems to be no real disagreement among the witnesses that a decoupling in fact took place. This arises from the fact that AMS reported its BMEP gauge and tachometer as reading zero while the propeller was still windmilling. Experts from both sides accepted this as meaning that the propeller had decoupled (RP 276; 674; 3187, LX 33).


An analysis of the messages transmitted by AMS as well as other evidence convinces me that libellants have proved by a preponderance of the evidence that AMS developed an overspeed in the #2 engine at about 4:24 A.M., June 20, 1956, that the propeller could not be feathered and the pilot decided to return to New York. During the next fifty minutes there is fairly general agreement by both parties that AMS:

(1) Gradually reduced altitude.
(2) Gradually reduced speed.
(3) Sent a number of messages as to position, course, etc.
(4) Was advised by Capt. Mendoza, Chief Pilot of LAV, to clear passengers away from the immediate area of #2 propeller.
(5) Replied by saying this had already been considered and was impossible because the plane was full.
(6) Advised New York that it was proceeding at about 146 knots at an altitude of 9000-9500 ft.

It is also agreed that at 4:46 A.M., AMS signaled an emergency due to the overspeed and asked assistance.11 As a result, Commander Hancox was ordered to take out a Coast Guard plane with a crew of four, including himself, to intercept and accompany AMS into Idlewild. At the same time, Captain Fisher in an Eastern Air Lines plane bound for Puerto Rico changed course to intercept. Thereafter, Commander Hancox sighted AMS by its lights and took up an escort position at first about 200, and later about 500 yards, off the port beam, slightly astern and 100 ft. above. Captain Fisher was also approaching. At 5:29, AMS radioed that it had New York in sight and, presumably because she was heavily laden with fuel, asked for and received permission to dump gasoline. Immediately thereafter, Captain Fisher noticed a "white puff" come out behind AMS, "then a very brief space and then a steady trail of mist which was coming out in a kind of a bubbling, rolling motion beneath the airplane, under the tail section and extending aft approximately the length of the fuselage —maybe not quite that far. From my post with the moon...

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