Local News

NTSB: Erratic Elevator May Have Contributed To Crash

Posted January 9, 2003 5:17 a.m. EST

— Federal Investigators of a commuter airplane crash that killed 21 people are looking at erratic behavior by a piece of equipment that controls the plane's lift, an investigator said Thursday.

Information from a flight data recorder shows the elevator on the Beech 1900 that crashed Wednesday morning "moving up and down a lot" following routine maintenance Monday night at an Air Midwest facility in Huntington, W.Va., said John Goglia, a National Transportation Safety Board member.

Goglia said the motion may not have influenced flights the plane made Tuesday, if the plane was not loaded to capacity. The plane was at nearly full weight Wednesday, he said.

"We do know the elevator tab was replaced, and that would require cable tensions to be re-adjusted," Goglia said. "Those are significant events to the flight control system of this aircraft."

The flight data recorder shows US Airways Express Flight 5481 took off from Charlotte/Douglas International Airport with its nose up seven degrees, which is normal takeoff pitch. The pitch was 52 degrees by the time the plane reached 1,200 feet.

"Something occurred to drive that pitch angle to 52 degrees," Goglia said. "That is abnormal."

Data indicates the plane was not overloaded. But the NTSB also is looking at whether the weight on the plane was properly balanced.

"If you add fuel, you add passengers, and you add freight, that's going to move," Goglia said. "You add all the bags in the back of the airplane after you balance the airplane, the plane is going to tip. So, in order for the airplane to fly properly, the balance has to be within a certain range."

Flight 5481, a twin-engine turboprop carrying 19 passengers and two crew members to the Greenville-Spartanburg airport in Greer, S.C., rolled to its right and dropped rapidly, clipping a corner of a US Airways maintenance hangar before it hit the ground just 37 seconds after takeoff.

No one on the ground was injured, though a portion of the hangar was scorched and battered. Workers were stabilizing the structure Thursday.

Goglia said the last of the victims was removed from the plane's wreckage early Thursday afternoon. He said family members had asked to visit the site, which they were expected to do Friday.

Jonathan Orenstein, chief executive of Mesa Air Group, which operates commuter flights for US Airways and other airlines, said the work done on the plane Monday in West Virginia was performed by Raytheon Air Services.

Orenstein said the airline was looking for other planes that may have been maintained by the same group of workers.

Goglia said workers replaced a tab that controls movement of the elevator, keeping the cockpit crew from having to physically move the elevator themselves. They also adjusted the tension of the cable that controls the tab, he said.

Elevators are flaps that swing up and down from the rear of a plane's horizontal tail stabilizer, increasing or decreasing the plane's lift.

In the case of Flight 5481, Goglia said, the flight data recorder showed "The elevator was moving. It was moving a lot."

Goglia said a team of NTSB investigators was headed for the West Virginia maintenance facility.

"We need to know which procedures were followed," he said.

Goglia and Orenstein both said they knew of no reports of problems with the plane from any of seven flight segments it made Tuesday.

FBI agent-in-charge Chris Swecker has said there is no preliminary indication that terrorism was a factor in the accident, the first commercial crash in the United States since American Airlines Flight 587 went down in New York on Nov. 12, 2001, killing 265 people.

Orenstein said the crash was the first in his company's 37-year history. He appeared near tears as he addressed reporters and had to pause to compose himself at one point.

"I apologize," he said. "It is really with a very heavy heart that I stand before you over this tragedy."

The FAA has issued nearly two dozen airworthiness directives on the Beech 1900-D since 1994. The directives warn of problems that must be repaired if found in an aircraft.

A directive issued in November and scheduled to be effective in two days warned that screws in the elevator balance weight attachment could come loose and interfere with the horizontal stabilizer.

The plane, built in 1996, was one of about 50 operated by Mesa Air Lines, parent of Air Midwest, said US Airways. The plane had been flown 15,000 hours and performed 21,000 takeoffs and landings.

FAA records showed the aircraft was involved in five in-flight incidents that the NTSB said could affect safe operations. The aircraft also reported 10 lesser service difficulties.

Flight 5481 took off shortly before 9 a.m. Within seconds the pilot, Capt. Katie Leslie, reported an emergency to the tower.

The transmission was cut short before she could identify the problem, said Greg Martin, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Sgt. David Marshall of the North Carolina Air National Guard was arriving for work at the Guard's headquarters near the airport when he saw the plane at about 1,000 feet, its nose pointing into the air.

Marshall, who holds a private pilot's license but does not fly for the Guard, watched in horror as the plane stalled.

"The nose came down, and it began to level off and it went into a second stall," he said Thursday as he arrived at the airport to offer his account to investigators.