Lack of CVR hampers Wellstone crash probe

 - May 8, 2008, 7:44 AM

Regardless of your political persuasion, the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) in an October aircraft accident was a tragedy on many levels. Foremost was Wellstone’s death and that of his wife Sheila, both 58, their daughter Marcia Markuson, 33, three campaign staffers (Mary McEvoy, Tom Lapic and Will McLaughlin) and the two pilots, Richard Conry, 55, and Michael Guess, 30.

At approximately 10:21 a.m. CST on October 25, the King Air A100 in which they were traveling crashed two miles from the Eveleth-Virginia (Minn.) Airport (EVM) while on an instrument approach. The flight was being conducted under Part 135 by charter operator Executive Aviation Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn. The airplane was destroyed and all eight on board were killed. According to FAA records, N41BE was registered to Beech Transportation, also of Eden Prairie.

The flight departed from St. Paul (Minn.) Downtown Airport (STP) at approximately 9:30 a.m. and climbed to 13,000 ft for the flight to EVM. Pilot reports provided by ATC to the crew indicated light to moderate rime icing between 5,000 and 11,000 ft.

The flight crew had been vectored by controllers to intercept the Runway 27 extended centerline approximately nine miles out, and they were cleared for the VOR Runway 27 approach. After interception of the inbound course, radar data indicates the aircraft flew on a southwesterly course and had slowed to approximately 85 kt before it disappeared from radar.

The airplane crashed approximately two miles southeast of the Runway 27 threshold. Tree strikes at the accident scene indicated that the aircraft was on a southerly course with a flight-path angle approximately 25 deg nose down. There was no further communication between the aircraft and ATC after the crew acknowledged receiving clearance for the approach. EVM’s automated weather station reported at the time of the accident 400 ft scattered, 700 ft overcast, visibility three miles, snow, wind less than three knots and temperature 1 deg C.

Carol Carmody, acting NTSB Administrator, stated the Hibbing Vortac used for the VOR 27 approach at EVM was found to be “slightly out of tolerance.” Tests were being conducted and, she added, “we don’t know how significant that is.”

This was the second fatal accident for the operator. In December 1997, the pilot and a passenger of another Beech King Air A100 (N100BE) were killed, and another person was seriously injured, when that aircraft crashed while on an IFR approach in IMC to Colorado Springs (Colo.) Municipal Airport (COS). In its investigation of that accident, the NTSB concluded that the pilot descended below the MDA.

According to a November 15 Associated Press report, Executive Aviation, the company that operated the Wellstone aircraft, has subsequently hired a Florida firm to conduct more intensive employee background checks. The decision by the company “follows revelations that Richard Conry, the pilot-in-command of the twin turboprop, had exaggerated his flying experience.”

The AP story reported that Conry told Executive Aviation he had 400 to 500 hr as a first officer for regional airline American Eagle, but employment records show he resigned after four months as a trainee and never flew a revenue flight. It was also reported that a spokesman for Executive Aviation said its decision to conduct more stringent background checks was made only to comply with post-September 11 regulations.

The question that must be answered, to make sense out of the Wellstone accident, and one that may never be answered, is why the aircraft made a gradual turn south of the airport and slowed to 85 kt. Unfortunately, without a cockpit voice recorder, it is quite likely that the reason will never be learned.