Runaway trim focus of Citation crash investigation

 - July 3, 2007, 6:16 AM

A pilot’s brief distress call concerning “trim runaway” remains (at press time) the sole clue in the fatal crash of a 1981 Cessna Citation II into Lake Michigan on June 4. Radar interpolation suggests the aircraft was traveling at up to 220 knots when it hit the water. A salvage crew was recovering the main cabin wreckage and cockpit voice recorder as AIN went to press.

The lifeguard flight departed Milwaukee Mitchell International at 3:58 p.m. and crashed less than six minutes later near the McKinley Marina off the downtown lakefront, killing all six aboard. The Coast Guard located the debris field 20 minutes later six miles northeast of the departure end of Runway 1 in 20 to 50 feet of water.

The crash was visible to afternoon commuters on the city’s Lincoln Memorial Drive, a major thoroughfare. Eyewitnesses said that the aircraft was headed toward the airport, displaying high bank angles, and entered the water at a severe nose-down attitude.

The Citation (N550BP, S/N 0246) was owned by Toy Air of Southfield, Mich., and operated by Marlin Air at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti for the University of Michigan’s Survival Flight air ambulance service. The aircraft had arrived in Milwaukee at 10:53 a.m. and was bound for Willow Run. Weather at the time of the crash was reported as north wind at 12 knots, peak gusts to 22, nine miles visibility with light rain, and clouds at 1,600 scattered, 3,000 broken and 3,500 overcast.

The aircraft had been assigned three separate serial numbers since its manufacture and had been owned by entities in Mexico and Venezuela before it was purchased by Michigan Toyota dealer Bob Page in 2003. The serial-number changes reflect that the aircraft had been converted from a Citation II to a II-SP and then back to a II, according to a Cessna spokeswoman.

No Early Indications of Failure
The aircraft had approximately 3,700 hours of total time and had been through a Phase 5 inspection six months before the accident. It was also enrolled in Cesscom, according to Stuart Dingman of Marlin Air, the aircraft’s operator. Dingman told AIN that he flew the airplane the day before the crash and it had flown “beautifully. Obviously something traumatic happened to this airplane,” he said.

The dead included Marlin’s chief pilot, Bill Serra, 59, and copilot Dennis Hoyes, 65, as well as two doctors and two specialists from the University of Michigan who were in Milwaukee harvesting human lungs for transplant. At the time of the crash, surgery had already begun in Ann Arbor on the transplant recipient. That surgery was halted and days later the patient received a different donor lung.

Dingman told AIN that the crewmembers were experienced pilots. He said that Serra had more than 12,000 hours and had flown transport-category aircraft, including DC-8s, before joining Marlin Air five years ago.

The June crash was the second for a Survival Flight operated by Marlin. In 2001 a Citation 500 it operated for the program was destroyed when it overran an icy runway in Sault St. Marie, Mich.