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Fri, Feb 27, 2004

Weight And Balance, Maintenance Blamed in N.C. Crash

NTSB Discusses Investigation In Public Meeting

A maintenance error combined with excess weight in the back of the plane led to the crash of US Airways Express Flight 5481 last year at North Carolina's Charlotte-Douglas Airport, federal investigators said Thursday. All 21 people aboard were killed in the crash, the deadliest in the United States in nearly 2 1/2 years. The twin-engine Beech 1900, operated by Air Midwest, took off on Jan. 8, 2003. Within seconds, however, its nose pitched up sharply. The aircraft stalled, then rolled left and plummeted into a maintenance hangar. The plane had been destined for Greer, S.C.

Lorenda Ward, the investigator in charge of the NTSB probe, said improperly rigged elevator cables combined with improper weight distribution led to the crash of the commuter plane.

"The simultaneous existence of these two errors resulted in a virtually uncontrollable airplane," Ward said in a report presented to the NTSB, which was to vote whether to accept the findings. The board also was expected to make recommendations on safety changes.

The plane was within 100 pounds of its limit when it took off. The cockpit voice recorder transcripts show Capt. Katie Leslie and co-pilot Jonathan Gibbs discussed the issue on the runway. Investigators said the plane's tail was too heavy because of the way the passengers and bags were distributed. In addition, the pilots could not compensate because the elevator cables did not have their full range of motion.

Safety board investigators found that a contract mechanic, several nights before the accident, improperly adjusted the elevator cables while the plane was at the airline's Huntington (WV) maintenance facility.  But there may be several reasons for the mechanic's mistake, including inadequate oversight of the maintenance facility by the company and the government. Air Midwest contracted maintenance to Raytheon Aerospace (now known as Vertex Aerospace), which hired mechanics from Structural Modification and Repair Technicians Inc. The DOT inspector general reported in July that the FAA does not adequately oversee the growing number of outside contractors repairing commercial airplanes.

"If there's a systematic problem out there with either oversight of these third-party maintenance facilities or systematic problems with the ways manuals are maintained, hopefully that's what we want to see fixed," said Capt. Terry McVenes, executive air safety vice chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).

FAA spokesman Les Dorr said it is up to the airline to make sure maintenance work is carried out properly. FAA inspectors visit sites based on where they can best allocate resources to mitigate risk, he said. Air Midwest's parent company, Mesa Air Group, announced this week that it will no longer contract out its maintenance. Also, the maintenance manual for the Beech 1900 has been revised to clarify rigging procedures.

The Charlotte crash also prompted changes in the FAA's guidelines for assessing the weight of passengers and baggage, adding up to 10 pounds to its estimate for people and 5 pounds to luggage.

FMI: www.ntsb.gov

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