Fatigue a factor in Wellstone crash?

 - January 8, 2008, 5:43 AM

The NTSB is eyeing fatigue as a contributing factor in the October 25 accident that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), members of his family and staff and both pilots. The King Air A100 crashed two miles from the airport during an approach to the Eveleth-Virginia (Minn.) Airport (EVM). Wellstone had chartered the aircraft from St. Paul-based Aviation Charter.

The flight had been vectored by air traffic controllers to intercept the extended centerline of Runway 27 for a VOR approach. Inexplicably, ATC radar showed it on a southwesterly course at a speed of 85 kt before it disappeared from radar. Both the engines and propellers appear to have been operating at the time of the crash. Weather was reported as three miles visibility with 700-ft overcast. The pilot received two FSS weather briefings before the flight.

A few days after the accident it was reported that Richard Conry, captain of the aircraft, had lied about his background when he applied to Aviation Charter in April 2001. It was discovered he was a convicted felon and had exaggerated his flying experience. Conry claimed to have been a commuter airline copilot for American Eagle and claimed 400 to 500 hr in an ATR turboprop. In fact, Conry had trained for about four months in 1990 and resigned before completing the training program.

In an unrelated situation, after leaving American Eagle, Conry was convicted of felony mail fraud and handed a two-year prison sentence. The conviction involved a home-building business he owned in the 1970s and 1980s in which he was paid for services he did not perform. Conry was also ordered to pay more than $200,000 in restitution. After serving time in the Yankton Federal Prison Camp in Yankton, S.D., Conry trained as a nurse in the mid 1990s.

While Conry may not have been forthcoming about his felony record, he apparently did not lie about it. According to Mary Milla, a spokeswoman for Aviation Charter, the job application asks if the applicant has been convicted of a felony in the past five years. Conry’s conviction on 14 counts of mail fraud had occurred more than 10 years earlier. There is no FAA requirement to revoke a pilot’s certificate because of criminal conviction unless it involves drugs or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The captain’s schedule in the days immediately before the crash is an area of focus in the NTSB’s investigation. Conry was called in by the company for an unscheduled flight very early on October 24, the day before the accident. The trip departed St. Paul Downtown Airport for a North Dakota destination at about 3 a.m. and returned at approximately 9:30 a.m. During that trip the passenger, Red Cross worker Tom Bruns, was struck by Conry’s appearance. Bruns reported, “He looked like he was wiped out. He looked white in the face. I was concerned about it…” He also said Conry complained about “not feeling so good.”

Less than nine hours after the early-morning October 24 flight, Conry signed in at about 6 p.m. for a four-hour nursing shift at a Twin Cities hospital until 10 p.m. Aviation Charter management was not aware that Conry was also working as a nurse or that he had worked the night before the accident. Conry arrived at the airport for duty about 8 a.m. the next morning.

According to Elizabeth Isham Cory, a spokeswoman for the FAA, Aviation Charter would have been required to give Conry a 10-hr rest period after the early-morning flight, which it did, but the regulation does not prevent pilots from working a non-aviation job during that period–it only prevents the pilot from flying.

Employment, pilot and medical records were still being reviewed by the NTSB at press time. Toxicological reports on the two pilots indicate no evidence of alcohol or drug abuse. To date, a review of aircraft records has revealed no outstanding maintenance items.

Fatigue has long been the subject of human-factor research and is often considered to be at least a contributing factor in many aircraft accidents. A May 1996 NASA technical memorandum regarding sleep deprivation states that losing as little as two hours of sleep will result in acute sleep deficit which in time induces fatigue and degrades subsequent waking performance and alertness. It also suggests that sleep loss accrues into a “cumulative debt.”