Early Indications Point To Pilot Error, Weather
Saturday marked the
one-year anniversary of a Beech King Air crash in Minnesota, one
that killed eight people including Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone
(D-MN, right), his wife and daughter, as well as three members of
his staff and the flight crew. NTSB investigators want to know why
the plane, which had been flying at 180 kts., 2000 feet AGL,
suddenly slowed to 85 kts, veered to the left and stalled. It
happened about two miles south of the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal
Airport. The King Air A100 clipped some trees, then slammed into a
The fire, which burned for seven hours, destroyed just about all
evidence relating to the disaster.
The NTSB will file its initial report next month. The St.
Paul Pioneer Press reports pilot error will probably be a big
factor in the report, but that investigators still haven't found a
definitive cause. They may never find one.
Wellstone's schedule for Oct. 25, 2002, called a flight from St.
Paul to Eveleth, where the Senator and his staff were to attend the
funeral of state Rep. Tom Rukavina's father. Wellstone then was to
be driven to Duluth for a debate with the three other candidates
for his Senate seat. Capt. Richard Conry and co-pilot Michael Guess
were supposed to meet them later that evening and fly the senator,
his family and aides back to St. Paul.
Ironically, the weather was so bad that the plane almost never
left the St. Paul downtown airport. At 7:16 a.m. the day of the
fatal flight, Conry got a met briefing from the FSDO in Princeton
(MN). The aviation forecast called for moderate icing, low clouds
and light precipitation. He also was warned that visibility was so
limited he would certainly be IMC most, if not all of the way.
It didn't look
good. Conry's friends and colleagues said he really didn't
like to fly in that kind of weather. Conry asked the FSDO specific
questions about the icing conditions. Based on the reply, he
asked about flying into Duluth instead of Eveleth. But the FSDO
briefer told him conditions weren't much better there.
"You know what? I don't think I'm going to take this flight,"
Conry told the briefer during that phone call.
But the decision didn't stick. Instead, Conry called back for
another briefing and found that conditions had improved -- just a
little. "OK, that's what I need," Conry told his briefer. "At least
it's above my minimum here." The plane departed St. Paul at 9:37
a.m. and crashed 45 minutes later.
The Pioneer Press reports investigators could find no
mechanical faults in what was left of the King Air's wreckage. The
gear was down, the flaps extended. There's still the possibility of
an electrical glitch, but the long-duration fire at the crash sight
ate that up.
While the VOR at Eveleth was slightly out of true, investigators
said it was no factor. Although the weather was close to minimums,
NTSB personnel flying a simulator found it shouldn't have been
anything the crew couldn't handle.
Conry's health apparently wasn't a factor. Pathological exams
indicated there was no evidence the 55-year old pilot had suffered
a heart attack.
So, the NTSB put Conry's background under the microscope. Their
findings were a bit disturbing. Aside from the fact Conry had a
prison record (he'd been convicted of mail fraud in a real estate
scam), they found he wasn't completely forthcoming about his flying
When he applied for a flying job at Aviation Charter, the
company that owned the King Air, Conry said he'd flown 514 hours as
a first officer for American Eagle. But when NTSB investigators
checked his logbook, they found he'd documented only 20 hours.
Conry resigned from American Eagle after only a few months.
Aviation Charter said it never knew about the inflated hours or
about Conry's criminal background.
But that wasn't the
worst of what was found by NTSB investigators. The Pioneer
- On a flight carrying Sen. Wellstone to Rochester (MN) on
October 22, Conry reportedly almost crashed because he hit the
wrong switch just after take-off. Departing the airport in downtown
St. Paul, the NTSB says he tried to activate the yaw damper.
Instead, he turned on the autopilot. The plane nosed sharply toward
the ground. Conry was heard to say, "What's going on?" It was
only after his co-pilot figured out what was up (or coming down)
and deactivated the autopilot that the aircraft pulled out of the
- Flying Wellstone and company in IMC a few months earlier, the
first officer left the cockpit briefly. When he returned, he found
the plane was banking at 45 degrees and descending at 1,000 feet
per minute. The co-pilot immediately assumed command and righted
the aircraft. When he asked Conry what happened, the pilot said, "I
don't know, I was fixating," Conry replied. Because they were in
clouds, the passengers never realized anything was wrong.
- Conry was once heard to say he didn't think he was "fast
enough" to fly the King Air A100. Conry logged almost 5,000 hours
of total flight time, but only 150 were in that type.
A meteorologist researching the accident reported as much as a
quarter-inch of ice may have built up on the wings. That's
certainly survivable in that type, but does require some special
procedures to compensate for the weight and increased drag. The
A100's approach speed should have been closer to 130 kts. When the
aircraft slowed to 85 kts. and banked, it was well below the
situational stall speed, according to the NTSB.
When interviewed about the incident in retrospect, St. Cloud
State University aviation professor Jeffrey Johnson told the
Pioneer-Press, "The haunting reality is that we may never
really ascertain the facts as to why eight people lost their