Findings due today on Flight 5481 crash
Recommendations on maintenance likely
Nearly 14 months ago, a plane carrying Tereasa Shepherd's daughter and 20
others stalled at 1,100 feet, then plunged to the ground at
Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.
Today, when the National Transportation Safety Board issues its conclusions
on what caused the crash, Shepherd will be watching to see who is held
"We'd like to see some sort of decisions made that will motivate others to
realize that cutting corners isn't cost-effective," said Shepherd, who lost
her 18-year-old daughter Christiana in the crash. "They can never know what
this has cost us."
Historically, NTSB crash investigations have helped improve airline safety.
Today, in Washington, D.C., the board is expected to make recommendations
that could affect maintenance oversight.
An Observer investigation last year found that outsourced maintenance
receives far less regulatory oversight than work done by the airlines' own
The board is also expected to look at the plane's weight and balance.
All 21 people aboard US Airways Express Flight 5481 died when the plane
crashed Jan. 8, 2003, just 37 seconds after takeoff. The crash happened two
days after a mechanic in Huntington, W.Va. adjusted cables that helped
control the Beech 1900D's up and down movements -- a job he'd never done.
Air Midwest operated the plane for US Airways and had hired maintenance
contractor Raytheon Aerospace. Raytheon in turn hired many of its mechanics
from a Florida labor contractor.
The plane was making its ninth -- and most heavily loaded -- flight since
maintenance. Investigators believe the maintenance in Huntington sharply
limited the pilots' ability to control the plane.
After reviewing a report from NTSB investigators, the five-member NTSB board
today is likely to focus on:
ï¿½ Air Midwest, which, under federal regulations, had responsibility for
maintenance and the loading of its airplane.
ï¿½ The Federal Aviation Administration, which was responsible for overseeing
ï¿½ Raytheon, the maintenance contractor, now named Vertex Aerospace.
Shepherd said she was troubled to learn that Air Midwest had hired a
maintenance contractor, which relied on a labor subcontractor.
"If I tell my daughter to tell my other daughter to tell my younger son to
do something, it won't get done," she said. "If I tell my son to do it, it
will get done. The more layers you have, the less responsibility everybody
takes. There has to be a limit to how many layers down you go."
Shepherd, whose daughter was a student at Bob Jones University in
Greenville, S.C., said it also disturbed her how little the FAA apparently
knew about the maintenance arrangement.
At the time of the crash, the FAA inspector in charge of monitoring
maintenance at Air Midwest had visited the Huntington facility just once
since mechanics began working on planes there. The inspector told the NTSB
he wasn't aware Raytheon was relying on a subcontractor for mechanics.
"I'd like to know why," Shepherd said. "I'd like to know how many other
situations they don't know very much about."
The NTSB has no enforcement powers, but it has influence. More than 80
percent of its recommendations are enacted.
The safety board's recommendations helped prompt the FAA to this month
mandate changes designed to eliminate the risk of fuel tank explosions, such
as the one that killed 230 people aboard TWA Flight 800 in 1996.
The crash of Flight 5481 has already spurred some changes. Weeks after the
crash, the FAA raised the passenger weight estimates used by airlines and
issued new requirements for maintenance of Beech 1900 elevator control
systems. Raytheon Aircraft, which built the Beech 1900, has significantly
changed the maintenance manuals.
Some relatives of the deceased passengers plan to go to Washington to watch
the hearing. Others, like Shepherd, plan to watch a webcast. Several family
members say they want the board to hold the airline, its contractors and the
The Shepherds, missionaries in the Azore islands off Portugal, say they are
awaiting the NTSB's conclusions before they file a lawsuit that they hope
will help improve airline safety. The family might be willing to settle for
less money, Shepherd said, if top corporate executives publicly acknowledge
responsibility for contributing to the crash.
"We want somebody to say the buck stops here," Shepherd says. http://www.charlotte.com/mld/observer/news/local/8043049.htm
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