By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Pilot error caused a March 2001 Comair flight to plummet 8,000 feet in 24 seconds before the crew regained control and avoided crashing into the Atlantic Ocean, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded this week in its final report on the incident.
The pilots were at fault for failing to control the plane during icing conditions, the NTSB report says.
But the report once again raises the issue of icing and what impact it has the operation of the particular kind of plane - the Embraer EMB-120 Brasilia turboprop - involved in the incident. The same kind of plane was involved in a similar accident in January 1997: the fatal Comair crash outside Detroit that killed 29.
Comair no longer uses the Brasilia, although the model is still in wide use nationally.
The ruling also comes when there is renewed scrutiny on airplane safety - especially on smaller planes in light of the Jan. 8 crash of a US Airways commuter flight in Charlotte, N.C.
Comair Flight 5054 was on its way from Nassau, Bahamas, to Orlando, Fla., on March 19, 2001, when it dropped suddenly and violently. It underwent several twists and turns and a full barrel roll before the pilots were able to regain control at an altitude of about 10,000 feet.
None of the 25 passengers or three crew members was seriously hurt, but the pilots made an emergency landing in West Palm Beach, Fla., 12 minutes later. The plane sustained substantial damage to its elevators and rear stabilizer.
The NTSB said the probable cause was "the failure of the flight crew to maintain airspeed during an encounter with severe icing conditions."
Comair and its pilot union Friday confirmed that the pilot who was at the controls is no longer with the airline. Stewart Richard "Dick" Lauer Jr., 58, is a former Comair captain who had more than 13 years' experience with the airline. Efforts to reach him Friday were unsuccessful, and Comair officials would not comment on why Mr. Lauer was not employed with Comair.
The co-pilot, first officer James Reynolds, 28, is employed by the airline, Comair officials said. Mr. Reynolds, who was hired in 1999, also could not be reached Friday.
Nick Miller, spokesman for Erlanger-based Comair, said the company was "extremely grateful that the aircraft was able to land safely and, as the NTSB points out, no one was injured."
"As for the facts of the case, the NTSB report speaks for itself," he said.
The incident was strikingly similar to the crash of Comair Flight 3272 outside Detroit on Jan. 9, 1997. All 29 people onboard were killed, and the NTSB had found icing was a major factor.
There was another key factor shared by both flights. In each case, various NTSB reports say, the autopilot was on when icing caused what is called a "wing stall." That's when the shape of the wing either is distorted by ice or becomes too heavy and, as a result, is unable to keep the plane aloft.
As a result of the Detroit crash, the NTSB in 1998 issued a recommendation that the autopilot not be engaged on the Brasilia in icing conditions. The agency, which has no power to force airlines to change maintenance or operational policy, later closed its recommendation with an "unacceptable action" designation after the Federal Aviation Administration said it would not order airlines to make changes in their policies.
"The FAA told us they weren't going to do it, so we had to close it," NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said.
The FAA, which does have regulatory control over airlines, instead said it would work with individual carriers and Embraer to make pilots aware of the issue, saying a rule was not necessary.
Embraer would not comment on the NTSB report.
After the Detroit crash, Comair amended its flight manual for the Embraer, ordering pilots to turn off the autopilot when icing is possible.
"In many cases, the carriers will make changes over and above the federal regulations if they believe it's necessary for safety," said Debby McElroy, president of the Regional Airline Association, the Washington-based trade group that represents smaller carriers.
Sue Tankersley, a West Chester woman who was on Flight 5054, said Mr. Lauer had told her as she got on the plane to expect a "rocky ride," saying she felt the pilot knew in advance that icing would be possible.
J.C. Lawson III, the chairman of Comair's branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, the airline's pilot union, would not comment on the report, although he has previously been critical of the FAA's lack of action on the NTSB's recommendation.
Comair late last year removed the last Embraers from its fleet, but there are still 127 of the planes in service in the United States, according to Brazil-based Embraer.
The largest user operates in the Rocky Mountains, Embraer says. Salt Lake City-based SkyWest, which flies for Delta Air Lines among others, uses the most of the planes nationally, followed by Delta subsidiary Atlantic Southeast Airlines.
This week, Delta officials indicated they were trying to purge their fleet of the Embraers.
The NTSB has not reissued its initial recommendation, but icing remains one of its top concerns in aviation safety.
When asked whether the agency was considering making another try at getting the FAA to order airlines to make the autopilot adjustment, Mr. Lopatkiewicz would not comment.
"We do not discuss potential recommendations," Mr. Lopatkiewicz said.
FAA spokesman Les Dorr said his agency would take another look at the issue if the NTSB gave another recommendation, but that until then, no further action would be taken.
"I'm kind of surprised to hear that the NTSB thinks it's their (the pilots') fault," said Mrs. Tankersley, who was headed home on the flight after a vacation with her husband, Jim. "I still credit the pilots with saving our lives by getting the plane under control.
"But maybe they're (the NTSB) saying that the pilots shouldn't have put us in that situation to begin with. All I can say is that there was a lot of praying going on on that plane and that we're still lucky to be alive."
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