Air Midwest crash ushers in regionals’ day of disaster

 - January 14, 2008, 7:34 AM

From a humanitarian perspective, regional air transport suffered perhaps its most destructive 24-hour stretch in history last month. Three separate fatal accidents, all unrelated but for the category of aircraft they involved, shook the industry at a time it could least afford the negative reaction. Once rescuers finished counting, the death toll totaled 72 in Turkey, 46 in Peru and 21 in the U.S. The cost in terms of passenger confidence will take somewhat longer to quantify.

As expected, the press in the U.S. rekindled an old controversy over the safety of turboprop airplanes after an Air Midwest Beech 1900D crashed into a hangar at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, N.C., on January 8, killing 19 passengers and the two crewmembers. It was the first crash of a turboprop in scheduled service in the lower 48 states of the U.S. since January 1997, when the FAA instituted its infamous “One Level of Safety” rule, requiring all Part 135 carriers flying scheduled service with aircraft holding more than nine passenger seats to meet Part 121 standards. Still, the news of the Charlotte crash had barely reached the NTSB in Washington when regional airlines found themselves faced with some of the same questions that gave rise to the Part 121 transition six years ago.

Critics still point to the relative lack of experience of many regional airline pilots as a basis for their skepticism about the safety of regional airlines in general. Few would find fodder for criticism in this case, however, after records showed the turboprop’s 25-year-old captain, Katie Leslie, had accumulated roughly 2,500 hours TT and 1,800 hours in the 1900D. An honors graduate from Louisiana Tech University in 1999, Leslie joined Air Midwest after serving as a flight instructor at her alma mater for nine months.

First officer Jonathan Gibbs, 26, had logged 700 hours in the type. Furloughed by Air Midwest shortly after 9/11, Gibbs moved to Charlotte last May at the behest of parent company Mesa Air Group, which, as part of a plan to lower costs, replaced Jetstream 31s operated by former subsidiary CCAir with Beech 1900s flown by lower-paid Air Midwest crews. Mesa shut down CCAir in July. 

Some 35 seconds after Air Midwest Flight 5481 had begun its takeoff roll on Charlotte’s Runway R18 at 8:45 a.m. for a half-hour flight to Greenville-Spartanburg Airport in Greer, S.C., Leslie issued an emergency distress call to ATC. By the time she finished the transmission, the airplane pitched upward from seven degrees nose up to 52 degrees, veered left, turned over and crashed into the corner of a US Airways maintenance hangar. The impact reduced the airplane to a heap of twisted metal and the ensuing inferno burned all the victims beyond recognition.

Exploring All Possibilities
Within five days the NTSB had collected all the wreckage and shipped the evidence to Washington for further analysis. During that time the Board divided the investigation into different groups to explore specific potential factors, including airframe structure, flight crew, maintenance, airport operations and weight-and-balance considerations. Weather reports at 8 a.m. indicated a six-knot wind from 220 degrees, 10 miles of visibility and temperature 35 degrees F.

Within hours of the crash, investigators gleaned 34 minutes of clear conversation from the airplane’s CVR, which recorded the entire ill-fated flight, as well as a portion of the airplane’s previous leg from Lynchburg, Va. Data from the FDR, although more difficult to extract due to the extent of the damage to the device, piqued far more interest, however. According to lead crash investigator John Goglia, the FDR showed erratic elevator movement during takeoff–as it did during all eight flights since mechanics at Raytheon Aerospace’s maintenance facility in Huntington, W.Va., worked on the airplane just two days earlier. However, at press time the Safety Board had not ruled out a false FDR sensor reading.

On Sunday, January 12, investigators
removed maintenance records from Air Midwest’s Wichita headquarters for more thorough analysis. Although the airline originally reported that a mechanic at Huntington had replaced an elevator tab two days before the accident, it subsequently said the mechanic had not. Air Midwest expected to finish its inspection of all 43 of its Beech 1900s by January 19.

 An NTSB spokesman told AIN that investigators had completed interviewing personnel at Huntington, but that the agency “may need to re-address some of them.” By the time they shipped all the pertinent materials to Washington, investigators turned their attention to a connecting cable adjustment performed on the doomed 1900D two days before the crash. Although go-team members found the cable intact and all connections in place, an improper adjustment could have caused it to jam, limiting the range of motion of the airplane’s suspect elevators. Loaded to within 100 lb of its 17,000-pound mtow, the airplane may have required more control authority during Flight 5481 than during earlier flights due to the heavy load.

Of course, the weight of the airplane had already become a subject of intense scrutiny when the NTSB received reports that ramp workers had questioned the amount of allowable baggage on the airplane before it taxied for takeoff. According to the NTSB spokesman, the original paperwork sent to the handler for sign-off showed just 26 bags. Another document indicated that handlers had loaded 32 bags. “The handler raised the question because there was a discrepency,” said the spokesman. “The decision was made that there were actually 31 bags, which is within the limit, so he did sign off on it.”    

“Unremarkable” Service History

The 1996 airplane had clocked just over 15,000 hours and 21,000 cycles. FAA records show that it was involved in five in-flight incidents where the potential for unsafe operations existed. During one incident in November 2000, the right engine lost oil pressure, forcing the crew to shut it down and land. The airplane also experienced at least eight other more minor problems, including a leaky fuel pump, replaced last fall, and faulty hydraulics in the left main landing gear, repaired in May.

Of the 700 or so Beech 1900s manufactured since the line’s introduction in 1984, eight have been involved in fatal accidents, according to Air Transport Association records. The May 1990 crash of an Aerolift Philippines 1900C in Manila also occurred after the aircraft lost control on takeoff. Investigators attributed that accident to engine failure. In the November 24 crash of a Ryan Air Service 1900C in Homer, Alaska, the NTSB found that improper loading of cargo caused loss of control just after the crew lowered the flaps for landing.

NTSB officials estimate that it could take between six and nine months to collect all the pertinent facts surrounding the 1900’s most recent crash. Of course, analysis of the data and a determination of the cause could take years.

By contrast, only two days after search-and-rescue teams found the wreckage of a Fokker F28-1000 that crashed on January 9, 10 miles north of Chachapoyas, Peru, Pervian president Alejandro Toledo pointed to human error as the cause. Owned by the government of Peru and operated by state-controlled TANS, the 62-passenger regional jet flew directly into the crest of an 11,500-foot cloud-covered mountain on approach to Chachapoyas Airport. The airport, located some 400 miles north of Lima, does not have an ILS or radar equipment.

“This has apparently been human error,” said Toledo during an impromptu press conference at the crash site. “The airplane was in perfect condition and the pilot had more than 9,000 hours of flying experience.”

According to an NTSB preliminary report, IMC prevailed throughout the area when the accident occurred at 8:43 a.m. EST. Investigators had recovered both of the airplane’s recorders and sent them to the NTSB’s Washington offices for analysis. 

The pilots never radioed a distress call, adding to the speculation that they were not aware of their predicament until moments before the crash. Investigators believe the airplane exploded upon impact and that the four crewmembers and 42 passengers died instantly. Rain, low clouds and rugged terrain of the cloud forest region kept search teams from finding the wreckage until two days after the accident. 

The Peruvian government established TANS 40 years ago to fly to remote jungle destinations deemed unprofitable by private airlines. It began offering weekly flights to Chachapoyas in October.

Accidents of the type suffered in Peru last month don’t surprise critics of Latin America’s failing air-transport infrastructure. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, countries such as Turkey have recently tried to dispel similar criticism in their quest to join the European Union. The January 8 crash of a Turkish Airlines Avro RJ100 certainly didn’t help Turkey’s cause as, once again, the lack of modern approach aids at Diyarbakir Airport appears a likely contributor to the disaster. Of the 80 people on board, 70 passengers, two pilots and three cabin attendants died. Five passengers survived. The four-engine BAE Systems regional jet crashed several hundred yards short of the runway.

A Turkish Airlines spokeswoman told AIN that the thick fog around the airport at the time of the accident is common during winter months due to the proximity of a river. She also confirmed that Diyarbakir–like many airports in eastern Turkey–does not have an ILS. It does offer VOR/DME and NDB/DME approaches, but at press time investigators had not determined whether the systems worked properly.

The accident further blemished an improving safety record at Turkish Airlines, which suffered five Boeing 737 and Avro RJ overruns (including two hull losses) in the late 1990s. The airline developed specific training for pilots flying into lesser equipped airports, especially in conditions of limited visibility. Since the move to enhance training, Turkish Airlines had experienced no landing accidents or serious incidents.

Specialized procedures adopted by the airline’s training center at Istanbul have concentrated on the elimination of pilot error. The poor standard of some domestic Turkish airports, especially in the east of the country, proved a major factor in the five accidents. As a result, it has also considered equipping its short-haul airplanes with head-up displays.