Saturday, August 14, 2004

Cargo plane wreckage yields few early clues

Overnight crash on N.Ky. golf course kills co-pilot

By James Pilcher
Enquirer staff writer


Photos from the scene
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FLORENCE - Investigators pored over the wreckage of Air Tahoma Flight 185 Friday, trying to piece together why the decades-old aircraft crashed within sight of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, killing the co-pilot and scattering the plane's cargo across a Florence golf course.

The pilot of the twin-engine Convair 580 is expected to be interviewed this weekend by the National Transportation Safety Board. Neither crew member has been identified.

Flight 185 was on a routine flight from Memphis with a cargo of parcels for DHL and was making its final landing approach shortly before 1 a.m. when the pilot reported engine trouble, officials said.

The aircraft was less than five miles from the airport. The pilot radioed that he thought he could make a safe landing, officials said.

But only a little more than 30 seconds and just over a mile from Runway 36R, the plane clipped a grove of pines at the World of Sports golf course, plowing into a tree across the sixth fairway and breaking into pieces. Its cargo of computer joysticks, audio equipment, documents and acrid-smelling fuel were strewn through the wooded area. It was 12:50 a.m.

The pilot walked away from the crash. Rescuers found him sitting on a bench on the fairway, talking by phone with a company dispatcher and bleeding from his injuries. He was taken to St. Luke Hospital West.

The pilot later was transferred to University Hospital. NTSB member Carol Carmody would not reveal details, but said he is "OK." Both the pilot and co-pilot are believed to be from the Memphis area.

The co-pilot's body was found buried in the gnarled wreckage of the tail section and was removed around noon.

Now, NTSB investigators must go to work trying to piece together the events that over a span of just a few minutes turned a routine flight on a cool, clear night into the first fatal aircraft accident at the busy Cincinnati airport in 21 years.

Other fatal crashes at CVG airport

Nov. 8, 1965: Fifty-eight people die, four survive when an American Airlines Boeing 727 crashes during landing.

Nov. 20, 1967: A TWA Convair 880 crashes just after take-off. Seventy of the 85 people on board die in the worst air disaster in Greater Cincinnati history.

June 2, 1983: An Air Canada Douglas DC-9 makes an emergency landing after the jet's lavatory caught fire on a flight from Dallas to Toronto. The crew was able to land the plane though it had no working instruments or radio. But once the plane's exits were opened, the outside oxygen caused an explosion. Twenty-three of the 46 people aboard were killed, mostly by toxic smoke from the plane's burning insulation.

"We are not going to speculate on any possibilities," the NTSB's Carmody said Friday afternoon at the golf course, several hours after a nine-member investigation team arrived from Washington.

50-year-old model

Air Tahoma, a small cargo and charter carrier based in Columbus, owned and operated the plane under contract to DHL. Investigators said Air Tahoma acquired the plane July 19 from another company that has not yet been identified. That transfer hasn't been recorded in the federal database, making it difficult for the NTSB to track the plane's maintenance history.

The Convair 580 model first entered service in 1954. Carmody said investigators believe the crashed plane was built in the early 1960s. Air Tahoma owns 13 planes, including at least six Convair 580s.

For seven years, the company has hauled freight from Memphis, Pittsburgh and Cleveland to be processed through DHL's hub here.

Records show the Federal Aviation Administration has cited Air Tahoma three times in the past four years for maintenance problems. The airline settled one case that began 2000 with a $5,000 fine. Appeals on the others are pending.

Its planes also have been involved in two accidents since 1996, including one in October 2003 when a plane's engine caught fire. Another Air Tahoma turboprop lost all oil pressure in one engine while trying to land in Memphis on Jan. 7, but landed safely with one engine.

Air Tahoma officials released a statement saying the company was "deeply saddened by the loss of a valued member of our company, but we are able to take some relief in the fact that another has survived this tragic event."

DHL officials said only that the company contracts with 10 to 15 companies such as Air Tahoma. A DHL spokesman praised Air Tahoma for "an excellent safety and operational record" over the past seven years.

DHL's hub handles more than 250,000 packages a night, and transfers freight from at least 50 flights between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

At the crash site, DHL workers carted off pickup trucks full of cargo to try to salvage some shipments.

Results likely next week

The NTSB on-site investigation is expected to take at least three to four days. Both the flight data and cockpit voice recorders were recovered and sent to Washington to be analyzed. Carmody said results could be available as soon as Monday.

She said the investigation would include representatives from the FAA and local air traffic controllers and Indianapolis-based Allison Engines, a formerly independent company that's now a subsidiary of Rolls Royce, which made the aircraft's engines, plus the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

Kelowna Flightcraft of Kelowna is a British Columbia company that specializes in Convair prop planes and oversees engineering issues for the aircraft. Kelowna president Barry Lapointe said he believes he will be asked to be part of the investigation.

'A wonder it didn't ignite'

Local emergency rescue personnel were on the scene shortly after Flight 185 went down. Boone County Coroner Doug Stith, who was notified of the crash at 1:38 a.m., said the co-pilot was pronounced dead at the scene.

"There was an enormous amount of jet fuel smell,'' Stith said. "It's a wonder it didn't ignite. The fact that it didn't catch fire is probably what saved the pilot's life."

The night stocking-crew working in the Kohl's department store on Houston Road near the crash site heard the plane come down. "It was so close they could smell (the spilled fuel) inside the building," said cashier Phyllis Yates of Florence. The store is less than a quarter-mile from the crash site.

Throughout the day Friday, golfers were turned away from the 65-acre, par 3 World of Sports course.

Norman Peacock, of Birmingham, Ala., arrived at 3 p.m. with clubs in the back of his VW Jetta.

He found a note that said the course wouldn't be open until at least Monday.

"I heard that there was an airplane that crashed on the golf course. I just didn't realize it was this one," Peacock said.

Staff writers Cindy Schroeder, Brenna Kelly and Jim Hannah and the Associated Press contributed. E-mail

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