Aviation experts say that the odds of a person winning the lottery are better than being in two airplane crashes, but that is what happened to Austin Hatch, 16, and his father Dr. Stephen Hatch, a pain specialist, of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In 2003, Austin was 8 years old when he and his family were flying home to Fort Wayne from their vacation cabin on Walloon Lake in Michigan’s peninsula. The family plane was making an emergency landing in Uniondale, Indiana, with Austin riding shotgun next to his dad while holding a flashlight on the vertical speed indicator to help ease the plane in. But the sputtering plane hit a utility pole, the lights went out, and the plane hit the ground. Austin and his father survived, but Austin’s sister Lindsay, 11, brother Ian, 5, and mother Julie, 38, were killed in the crash.
After the crash that claimed their family, Austin and his father relied on each other to get through. Their bond deepened as they struggled to heal their lives. Stephen remarried to a woman named Kim who earned young Austin’s love and respect.
Austin himself became a star basketball player at Canterbury High School and was regarded as one of the best young players in Indiana. He was even recruited to play for Michigan on scholarship two years before he graduated. Stephen beamed with pride over his son’s success on the court, which was matched by his straight-A record in the classroom.
Kim, regarded as a loving, attentive soul, volunteered her time in Joplin, Missouri, helping residents of that city recover from a tornado that destroyed hundreds of homes and families.
On June 23, Kim drove up from Joplin to Ft. Wayne to join her husband, adopted son, and his dog Brady on a trip to the lake cabin. Both father and son had conquered any fear they had of flying since the 2003 crash, and Austin was training to get his pilot’s license himself. They took off from Fort Wayne in their Beech A36 at about 5:30 p.m. with Stephen at the controls, Kim next to him, and Austin and Brady in the back.
Two hours later, the plane was found lodged into the side of an empty garage somewhere in Charlevoix, Michigan. Stephen and Kim were pronounced dead at the scene, Austin was clinging to life with injuries to his head, ribs, and legs, and Brady was found unhurt the next day a few blocks away from the crash.
Although the precise cause of the crash hasn’t yet been determined, investigating authorities told ESPN that the Hatchers’ plane had been twice diverted, from Boyne Falls to Boyne City and then to Charlevoix but declined to say why, although rain and fog were likely factors.
Aviation crashes involving big commercial passenger jets are fairly rare, but crashes involving small, private jets and single-engine planes like the ones that stole the lives of Austin Hatch’s family are much more common.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), there were 3,025 civil and general aviation airplane accidents in 2009, resulting in 1008 fatalities. The majority of these crashes and fatalities occurred in general aviation, meaning flights that did not involve military aircraft or scheduled commercial airliners, such as private and sport flying, aerial photography, surveying, cropdusting, business flying, medical evacuation, flight training, and police and firefighting uses.
Determining the precise cause of an aviation crash is typically a complex process, but some of the leading causes of fatal crashes include mechanical failure, such as engine failure or a flaw or failure in some vital component of the aircraft, improper maintenance, structural or design problems, pilot error, air traffic controller error, runway defects, violations of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, and other factors.
Whenever an airplane crashes in the United States, be it a big commercial jet, a single-engine plane, a turbo-prop plane, multi-engine jet, helicopter, the National Transportation Safety Board investigates with the mission of establishing a probable cause for the accident.
Sometimes the probable cause clearly reveals legal liability, such as improper maintenance or pilot error in a chartered jet or some defect in the engine, controls, or deign of a private airplane. In other circumstances, however, legal liability can be obscured by the complex nature of aviation, even when the NTSB’s probable cause seems simple.
With any aviation crash that results in injury and/or death, it’s important for victims to seek the right legal guidance – experienced lawyers who can help them navigate the extensive and highly technical maze of aviation litigation.