When you purchase an aircraft insurance policy you expect that the policy will provide coverage when you need it. However, that isn’t always the case. All aircraft insurance policies contain requirements, conditions and provisions with which you, the insured, must comply in order for the policy to provide coverage. These requirements often mandate the condition of the aircraft (e.g. airworthiness), qualifications and currency of the pilot and accuracy of the information provided by the insured to the insurance company. If an accident or loss occurs, and a policy provision has been breached, the insurer may have the right to deny coverage.
Most, if not all, aircraft insurance policies have provisions relating to the pilot(s) who will be operating the aircraft. These provisions typically require that the pilot have a current and valid medical certificate and that the pilot be in compliance with all recency of flight regulations. The policy may also limit coverage to certain identified pilots. Insurers have denied coverage based upon breaches of these provisions when the aircraft was flown by an unapproved pilot.
This was the situation in the aftermath of an accident involving a P-51D Mustang. The case, U.S. Specialty Insurance Company v. Estate of Earley, arose after the Mustang crashed, killing both Pilot A, the aircraft owner and named insured on the policy, and another pilot, Pilot B, who was flying with Pilot A.
The Mustang, originally built as a single-seat aircraft, was modified to (1) add a second, rear seat and (2) add limited controls to the rear seat: a control stick, rudder pedals, and a throttle control. These modifications were intended to allow an experienced pilot to instruct a new pilot from the rear seat. However, the modifications to the Mustang were limited and did not provide access to the following controls from the rear seat: the landing gear; the trim; the fuel selector; the propeller pitch; the brake; the hydraulics; the starter and magneto controls; the fuel boost pump; and the electrical controls.
On July 4, 2014, Pilots A and B took off in the Mustang for an instructional flight with Pilot A in the forward seat and Pilot B in the rear seat. Shortly after takeoff the Mustang crashed. At the time of accident, Pilot B was identified on the aircraft’s insurance policy as a pilot who was approved to operate the aircraft, while Pilot A was not.
After the accident, the insurance company who insured the aircraft took the position that it was not obligated to cover the accident because (1) Pilot A was receiving instruction in the aircraft and (2) he was the pilot actually flying the aircraft, which violated the terms of the insurance policy. The district court agreed and then Pilot A’s estate appealed the decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Unfortunately for the Estate, the Court agreed with the district court’s decision. The Court observed that the policy language was clear in stating that the policy did not provide coverage if the Mustang was “operated in flight” by someone other than one of the approved pilots. So, the question was whether Pilot B, one of the approved pilots, could have operated the Mustang from the rear seat.
The Court concluded that Pilot A was, in fact the pilot operating the Mustang in flight because “he was the only pilot with access to all of the controls and instruments needed to ‘control the functioning’ of the Mustang.” Not only was the rear seat passenger unable to access 21 of the 24 most critical of the flight controls and instrumentation required to fly a Mustang, but the FAA’s approval of the two-seat Mustang conversion was valid only if the Mustang was placarded to be flown from the forward seat only. Thus, the Court affirmed the district court’s finding that the insurance policy did not cover any potential claims that may have arisen from the accident.
Although this case is an unfortunate result for Pilot A’s estate, it is a good example of why you need to make sure you comply with all of the provisions and requirements contained in your policy. Failure to comply could very well result in a denial of coverage if you are ever involved in an accident or loss. In the aftermath of an accident or loss, the last thing you want to do is fight with your insurer for coverage. To avoid this type of situation and to ensure that you will have coverage when you need it, you need to be aware of and comply with the requirements and conditions of your aviation insurance policy.