Learjet crashes on takeoff

 - May 29, 2008, 10:26 AM
LEARJET 25B, PITTSBURGH, PA., NOV. 22, 2001–On Thanksgiving Day a business jet owned by Universal Jet Aviation crashed while on takeoff. The two pilots on board were headed home to Florida’s Boca Raton Airport (BCT) in clear skies and good visibility. Airborne for mere moments, the Learjet ran off the left side of Runway 28L and burst into flames, killing both pilots.

Several witnesses watched the attempted departure at about 1300. An FBO employee made it a point to watch the Learjet take off and recounted his observations: “I like to hear the noisy engines and watch them rocket out of the airport.” From the vantage point of an air stair, the witness reported seeing the takeoff roll: “I noticed for an empty Learjet 25 it was sure using lots of runway.” He told NTSB investigators the copilot said it was his leg home.

In the initial and subsequent interview, the employee elaborated on the unusual departure. “The nose came up, and it was an extreme nose-up attitude. He was riding the tail and he did it for a long time. The nose was pitched up almost 45 degrees, even more. From the beginning of the takeoff roll, it just didn’t seem to be going fast enough to take off. I don’t know if it was because he was stalling the wing, because the nose was high. It was as if he was doing a short-field takeoff. Yoke back, and then as you lift off you push the nose over, but he never pushed the nose over. It was like he was stalling the wing, and the only thing keeping the nose up was the ground effect. When he veered off the runway, the nose was up the whole time.” Indeed, investigators found only main gear tire marks across the grass; the nose came down only upon impact.

When asked about the sound of the engines, the witness stated: “They were really loud. Like they were really trying to get it off the ground. It was like a shriek. When he went off the side of the runway, it was extremely, extremely loud, and the engine noise was continuous until impact.”

NTSB investigators reported the crew deplaned passengers at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) the night before and were expecting a charter flight to Washington on the morning of the accident. The trip was cancelled, so pilot Chris Mitchell, 41, and copilot Harry Fitts, 34, were repositioning the aircraft to Boca Raton (BCT). Without passengers, they could fill the tanks and did so just before departure. The fuel truck was pulled from service immediately after the accident as a precaution. Investigators later tested it and found no anomalies.

The NTSB recovered the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) from the airplane the same day and forwarded it to its laboratory in Washington. Preliminary review of ATC tapes found no transmissions from the pilots after the takeoff clearance. Further, those radio tapes revealed nothing unusual.

Investigators recovered all major components at the scene of the crash, established control continuity in all directions and found no evidence of foreign object damage. Tire tracks began off the left side of the runway 3,420 ft from the start and continued another 1,500 ft. The tracks stopped 45 ft from a chain-link fence, which ran north/south and bordered a swale 300 ft deep and nearly 500 ft across. Investigators found the fence flattened, with three strands of barbed wire at the top severed.

After extinguishing the blaze, firefighters found the main cabin door handle in the locked position and the electrical system still running. They tried without success to open the door from the outside. One firefighter said he tried to shut off the electrical power through the pilot’s window by pulling circuit breakers and flipping switches. When those attempts failed, the firefighter entered the cabin through the main door.

Mitchell held an airline transport certificate with ratings for single- and multi-engine land and instrument airplane. He was also a flight instructor in single- and multi-engine land airplanes. Universal Jet reported his total flight time as 5,952 hr with 3,030 in Learjets.

Copilot Fitts was a commercial pilot with ratings for single- and multi-engine land and instrument airplane. A CFII in single-engine airplanes, the copilot had 1,240 hr TT, including 300 in Learjets. Both pilots had current medicals and current biennial flight reviews.

The 1972 Learjet had 10,004 hr of flight time and was maintained, according to the operator, in an approved aircraft inspection program. Maintenance personnel completed a 600-hr check 13 days before the accident flight, and the airplane had since flown 12.8 hr. This was the second  Universal Learjet involved in an accident in the last 18 months. A Universal Jet Learjet 55 was involved in a midair collision with an Extra 300 in June 2000.