Recent accidents strike a blow for regional airlines

 - December 18, 2007, 5:56 AM

Just when it looked as if the image of the regional airline industry escaped relatively unscathed from last year’s spate of accidents, the crash of two more regional airliners in Missouri last month thrust it right back into the glare of public scrutiny. The first, involving a Pinnacle Airlines Bombardier CRJ200 on October 14, killed the two pilots flying the airplane on a positioning flight from Little Rock, Ark., to Minneapolis.

The other, involving a Corporate Airlines Jetstream 32 on an October 19 scheduled flight from St. Louis to Kirksville, Mo., killed 11 passengers and both pilots. Two passengers survived. Over the past 21 months the regional airline industry has suffered five fatal accidents, causing 40 deaths.

On October 20 NTSB investigators finished reading the flight data and voice recorders retrieved from the Pinnacle CRJ, which crashed nine miles short of an alternate airstrip in Jefferson City, Mo. According to the data gleaned from the tapes, the airplane’s GE CF34-3B1 turbofans flamed out almost simultaneously at the airplane’s ceiling of 41,000 feet msl, some 80 miles south of Jefferson City. Unable to relight the engines, the pilots reported they could see the runway approach at Jefferson City airport, but the airplane crashed in a residential neighborhood at 10:15 p.m. central time. No one on the ground sustained injuries, although the airplane caused considerable property damage.

As AIN went to press, NTSB investigators had not determined what caused the engines to fail, but they acknowledged interest in the airplane’s atypically high altitude at the time of the emergency. Pinnacle Airlines has since restricted the ceiling for its CRJs to 37,000 feet.

The accident aircraft had flown 10,161 hours and its last major inspection revealed no major problems. The right engine, installed new on October 23 last year, had logged 2,303 hours and 1,971 cycles. The left engine, taken from another airplane and installed this past April 6, had amassed 8,856 hours and 8,480 cycles since new. Records show that during an A4 check on June 9 mechanics replaced the left engine igniters. During an A5 check on August 18 they replaced the right engine igniters.

However, another flight crew aborted the airplane’s last scheduled flight when an indicator light alerted them to a possible problem with the bleed-air system during taxi. Shortly afterward Pinnacle flew two mechanics to Little Rock to repair the 14th stage bleed sensing loop on the right engine, according to an NTSB spokesman.

On-scene examination of the wreckage showed no sign of an in-flight fire, but uncovered thermal damage on the right engine. The NTSB shipped the engine for a teardown and further inspection in Lynn, Mass.

Five days after the CRJ crash, NTSB member Carol Carmody and another go-team found themselves right back in Missouri for an on-site inspection of the Jetstream 32 crash site, where rescue teams encountered one of the passengers walking amidst the debris. She and another survivor, found some 25 feet away from the remains of the fuselage, sustained some broken bones and burns, but nothing life threatening.

Investigators retrieved the airplane’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders on October 20 and sent them to Washington for analysis. The 19-seat turboprop, flying as an American Connection code share, crashed in a wooded area two miles south of Kirksville Regional Airport while on approach. Weather reports at the time indicated a 300-foot ceiling, four miles visibility, mist and scattered thunderstorms. The crew had reported no problems before ATC lost radio contact at about 7:33 p.m. central time.

At press time the NTSB had yet to find any clues about why the pilot in command, 48-year-old Kim Sasse of Ramsey, N.J., continued an apparently controlled but premature descent after indicating he could see the runway threshold. Thirteen seconds later the cockpit voice recorder captured the sounds of the airplane hitting treetops. The tape stopped three seconds later.

Sasse and 29-year-old copilot Jonathan Palmer had been on duty for 14 hours and 41 minutes, according to Carmody. Investigators plan to consider the possibility of fatigue as a factor in accident.

Smyrna, Tenn.-based Corporate Airlines had yet to install a terrain awareness warning system (TAWS) in the airplane as required by March 29 next year under a 2001 FAA rule covering turbine-powered U.S.-registered airplanes with six or more passenger seats. The airline, now flying 16 Jetstream 32s, said it planned to install the devices in all its airplanes by the deadline of next March 29.

Last month’s accidents seem likely to revive doubts about the safety practices
of regional airlines after the industry extricated itself from the public outcry that followed three fatal crashes within the span of eight months last year. The first involved an Air Midwest 1900D that crashed into a hangar at Charlotte International Airport on January 8, killing 19 passengers and the two crewmembers.

Six months later, an Air Sunshine Cessna 402C ditched in the Atlantic Ocean after engine failure about seven miles west-northwest of Treasure Cay in the Bahamas, killing two of the 10 occupants. Only a month after that incident, on August 26, another Beech 1900, flown by Manassas, Va.-based Colgan Air, plunged into Nantucket Sound five minutes into a positioning flight from Hyannis to Albany, killing the two pilots.

In its final reports the NTSB chided maintenance contractor Raytheon Aerospace, Air Midwest and Air Sunshine (see also News Briefs, page 8) for improper maintenance practices and the FAA for lax safety oversight. The Air Midwest accident also resulted in new standards for weight-and-balance calculations, while the Colgan Air crash uncovered a mistake in the Raytheon Beech 1900D service manual.