Low-altitude steep bank preceded Learjet crash

 - August 5, 2008, 11:16 AM
The NTSB is about a month into its investigation of the fatal crash of a Learjet 35 that was attempting to land at Groton New London Airport in Connecticut. The two ATP-certified pilots, the only people aboard, were killed in the August 4 accident.

According to the Safety Board, Learjet N135PT, operated by Air East Management, took off under an IFR flight plan from Air East’s headquarters at Republic Airport in Farmingdale, N.Y., at 6:10 a.m. for the 20-minute positioning flight to pick up three passengers at Groton, with the intention of flying them to Buffalo, remaining there for the day, flying back to Groton and returning to Farmingdale.

About five miles west of Groton, the pilots advised Providence Approach that they had visual contact with the airport and canceled IFR. No further communications were received from the pilots. The airplane entered the left downwind for Runway 23 at Groton at 1,800 feet msl and continued to descend. About 2.3 miles northeast of the runway, the airplane made a left turn onto base. Approximately 1.5 miles from the runway, and south of the extended runway centerline, the airplane turned left, and then back toward the right.

When the airplane was about an eighth of a mile south of the runway threshold, it made a right turn of approximately 60 degrees back toward the runway. The airplane crossed the runway at an altitude of 200 feet agl and began a left turn toward the center of the airport. The turn continued, and the airplane reentered a left downwind for the runway, about 1,100 feet south of the runway, at an altitude of 300 feet agl. The last radar target was observed at 6:38 a.m. about an eighth of a mile northeast of the runway.

A pilot witness at the airport heard the airplane as it approached from the east at a height consistent with the minimums for the VOR approach and turn left for the Runway 23 downwind leg. The witness lost visual contact with the airplane as it continued on the downwind and “skimmed” into or behind clouds.

90-degree Bank at 200 Feet agl

The airplane reappeared from the clouds at about 200 feet agl, and as it overshot the extended centerline for the runway, the bank angle increased to “about 90 degrees,” according to the witness. The airplane then descended from view. He recalled hearing the airplane’s engines increase in power just before the crash. He described the weather to the north and northeast of Groton as poor visibility with “scuddy” clouds.

Another witness saw the airplane proceed overhead the airport and initiate a steep left turn to join the downwind for Runway 23. The airplane continued the left turn, increasing the bank angle to “almost 90 degrees.” As the jet was turning final, it began to “wobble” from left to right before disappearing behind a tree line.

A witness who has worked at the Groton Airport for more than 30 years described the weather just after the accident as “a typical morning, with the wind from the south packing in the clouds over the hills to the north.”

This witness added that there were no clouds or fog over the airport or to the south. The witness estimated the cloud base to the north and northeast to be between 500 and 600 feet agl. An automated weather observation taken at the Groton Airport at 6:56 a.m. (18 minutes after the crash) reported nine miles of visibility, a scattered cloud layer at 4,100 feet, wind from 150 degrees at 10 knots, temperature 73 degrees F, dew point 71 degrees F and an altimeter setting of 30.05.

The airplane’s initial impact point was the rooftop of a home about a quarter mile northeast of the approach end of Runway 23. The wreckage path continued for about 800 feet on a 280-degree heading through a small line of trees, a second house, a second line of trees, a third house, down an embankment and through a boardwalk, before coming to rest in the shallow waters of the Poquonock River. The pilots were ejected from the airplane during the crash sequence.

There was no immediate information about squawks or mechanical problems. Post-crash examination indicated that both engines showed signs of producing high power. The CVR and FDR were recovered in good condition and were being analyzed at press time. (This Learjet was an ex-Air Force transport, and Air East elected to maintain operation of the FDR, as well as the required CVR.)

The majority of the right wing broke off and remained on land, along with the right landing gear, the horizontal stabilizer and the tip tank of the left wing. Everything else was found in the water. The right engine remained attached to the fuselage, but that portion of the fuselage was separated from the main cabin. The left engine was separated, as were the reversers from each engine. Six feet of the right wing and 12 feet of the left wing remained attached. The main cabin was crumpled by the impact and was burned by a post-crash fire. Although the cockpit was totally destroyed in the crash sequence, cockpit gauges remained intact.

The captain’s airspeed reference bug was set to 144 knots. The first officer’s airspeed indicator bug was set to 124 knots. The left thrust lever was found at the idle position, and the right thrust lever was forward about one inch. The landing-gear selector switch was in the down position and the flap selector switch was in the up position. The fuel selector was in the “L wing” position, and the fuel quantity indicator displayed 1,300 pounds.

Killed in the crash were Air East pilots Jerrod Katt, 33, and Kenneth Hutchinson, 56. The captain (Katt) reportedly had 4,300  hours TT and the copilot had 9,000 hours, including a Learjet type rating.

Air East is a 21-year-old, family-owned charter, sales, training and maintenance business that operates several other Learjets and a number of Beech Barons. Air East declined to comment for this report.