Next-generation airship with on-board buoyancy management technology destroyed when section of Navy hangar roof fell 17 stories onto aircraft in October 2013; Law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge brings case on behalf of Aeros under Federal Tort Claims Act

Hindered by restitution efforts for the loss of its next-generation prototype airship stored in a U.S. Navy hangar that collapsed in 2013, lighter-than-air aviation manufacturer Aeroscraft Aeronautical Systems Corp. (Aeros) has filed suit against the Department of the Navy (the Navy), seeking to recover damages in excess of $65 million.

The suit, brought in federal district court in Los Angeles, challenges the Navy for denying Aeros’ claim that it was responsible for loss of the high-tech variable-buoyancy airship (the Aeroscraft), which was destroyed when a large section of the hangar roof fell the equivalent of 17 stories directly onto the aircraft on October 7, 2013.

Law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge, which has one of the country’s premier practices handling government contract disputes, is representing Aeros and is bringing the suit pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).

At the time of the accident, the Aeroscraft had been stored in a World War II-era hangar at the former Marine Corps Air Station Tustin (California) through a license with the Navy Base Realignment and Closure Program. A full assessment of damage to the Aeroscraft determined it to be a total loss from the roof collapse.  Aeros suffered additional financial damages when government engineers, out of concern for public safety, did not allow Aeros access to any of its property located inside the Navy hangar for more than eight months.   The full loss sustained by Aeros is in excess of $65 million.

Documents obtained subsequently by Aeros under Freedom of Information Act requests reveal that as far back as 1997, the Navy was informed that sections of the hangar roof were in need of “critical repair.”  In 1997, the Navy commissioned a structural evaluation of the hangar (prepared by Becker and Pritchett Structural Engineers) that identified the section of the roof that eventually collapsed (truss number 1) as both a “critical repair” (i.e. to be repaired within two years) and the “primary structural problem” of the hangar. The report explained that this was a known and continuing problem associated with the building and that this roof section, truss 1, had previously been repaired in 1975 and 1987, “but following a 10-year lapse the distress has progressed.”

Despite that warning, no maintenance or repair work appears to have been undertaken prior to the 2013 collapse.  Two structural evaluation reports performed by Navy engineers after the roof collapse indicate that the 50 foot-by-70-foot section of hangar roof crashed onto the Aeroscraft precisely at the point identified as a structural weakness in the 1997 report, and that no repair or maintenance had been performed on the roof since the 1997 structural evaluation.

On June 12, 2014, Aeros filed its FTCA administrative claim with the Navy for damages sustained to the Aeroscraft.  In a two-page response issued on December 18, the Navy denied Aeros’ administrative FTCA claim, but failed to set forth any basis or rationale, factual or legal, for rejection. In doing so, the FTCA denial letter failed to comply with the Navy’s own policies which state “the final denial of the {FTCA} claim shall include the reasons for the denial.” USW 804920797.5

James Gallagher
James Gallagher

“It is unfortunate that Aeros has had to pursue litigation of this matter,” said McKenna Long litigation partner James Gallagher, who has represented numerous aerospace contractors in disputes with branches of government.  “Aeros fully informed the Navy of the reasons it believed it was entitled to be paid for the total loss of its airship – and the Navy has steadfastly refused to respond with any rationale why the company’s position lacked merit, despite the fact that the Navy had been notified 16 years earlier of the need for critical repairs to the hangar roof, but had failed either to perform such repairs or notify Aeros of these known structural defects before entering into a license agreement to store the airship at its facility.  Under these circumstances, Aeros’ only recourse is to bring this lawsuit.”

The Aeroscraft is a 266-foot long rigid airship with on-board buoyancy management technology called COSH (control-of-static-heaviness), to control lift in all stages of air or ground operations, enabling both vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and off-loading of cargo/payloads without airships’ traditional requirements for external ballast exchange. The innovative aircraft, the subject of numerous media stories and a series premiere episode on the History Channel (H2), has been lauded for its on-board buoyancy technology, infrastructure independence, and minimal energy use.

The Aeroscraft was manufactured by Aeros to demonstrate and launch a new category of freighter aircraft capable of transporting heavy payloads to remote locations and providing flexible, point-to-point air cargo delivery for military, commercial and humanitarian applications. Infrastructure independent modern cargo airships like the Aeroscraft offer an innovative way of delivering needed logistical capabilities for both military and non-military purposes. Appearing before the House and Senate Armed Services Committee in 2013, General William M. Fraser III, then Commander for U.S. Transportation Command (now retired), testified:“Hybrid airships represent a transformational capability, bridging the longstanding gap between high-speed, lower-capacity airlift, and low-speed, higher-capacity sealift. Across the range of military operations, this capability can be leveraged from strategic to tactical distances. From swift crisis action support to enduring logistical sustainment operations, hybrid airship technology has the potential to fulfill ‘factory to foxhole’ cargo delivery. We encourage development of commercial technologies that may lead to enhanced mobility capabilities in the future.”

“We’re hopeful the claim we’ve been forced to file will result in an expedited and appropriate restitution of the damages we’ve incurred unnecessarily,” said Aeros CEO Igor Pasternak.  “For the past 17 months, we have attempted to address damages arising from a clear dereliction of duty as quietly as possible, out of our deep respect and appreciation for the support we’ve received from the military. However, the Navy’s unwillingness to resolve the issue in a timely manner is now delaying a long-sought airlift capability that holds promise to solve complex logistics problems, save significant taxpayer money, and save lives following natural disasters.”

The lawsuit is captioned:  Aeros Aeronautical Systems Corp. v. USA, The Department of the Navy; Case No. 2:15-cv-1712

Related Articles