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Faulty navigation beacon may have been factor in Wellstone crash
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Documents released included photographs of the cockpit and cabin area at the crash site. (National Transportation Safety Board)

Washington, DC — Documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board appear to lessen the likelihood that airframe icing played a role in the October 2002 crash that killed U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone and seven others, but raised new questions about the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport's guidance beacon.

The King Air A100 crashed about 2½ miles from the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, killing everyone aboard: Wellstone, D-Minn., his wife, Sheila; their 33-year-old daughter, Marcia Wellstone Markuson; and five others.

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Image Passenger/crew door

The report also says three of dead -- but not the Wellstones -- apparently survived the crash, only to be killed in the resulting fire.

The NTSB's release of massive amounts of evidence in the crash did not include any analysis or conclusions; a final report is expected within the next year. But they did reveal new questions about the accident, including the pilot's decision to make the flight in the first place.

Investigators focused on the role of icing in the crash, with a strong suspicion that a buildup of ice prevented the pilots from maintaining the necessary airspeed or altitude as it approached the airport.

Ice on a plane's wing disrupts the air flow, causing the wing to lose its lift, often causing a plane to spin and crash.

But the documents show that just seven miles from the airport -- about three minutes from landing -- the pilot's of the King Air 100 had no difficulty maintaining altitude, and was cruising at between 180-200 knots, and it's last reported ground speed was 160 knots as it approached the runway.

Weather reports indicated that light icing conditions, but at a higher altitude than the plane's position. Two pilots who flew into Eveleth earlier in the morning both reported only light icing, and no icing below 5,000 feet, and one pilot reported that what little ice he picked up at higher elevations, was coming off at about the altitude the Wellstone was flying.

Well, let's try it.
- Wellstone campaign scheduler after being advised of marginal weather conditions

National Center for Atmospheric Research meteorologist Ben Bernstein, who studied radar and satellite imagery along with other weather information for the NTSB, told Minnesota Public Radio recently that icing was not likely a major problem at the time the plane crashed.

"Without actually going in there with an aircraft and putting instruments and probes in there, there's no way for us to know for certain how severe the conditions may have been, but looking at the data we did look at, it didn't appear to be a particularly severe situation. This case looked like something that wasn't really far out of the norm," he said.

Instead, a new possible culprit surfaced; the airport's VOR, a radio transmitter that pilots use to find their way to an obscured runway.

Although a pilot who landed at Eveleth several hours before the ill-fated flight was due to arrive reported that the beacon "worked fine," investigators who duplicated the flight path in an airplane the day after the crash, found that while the "beacon" appeared to guide them properly until about 4 miles from the runway, it then suggested they were too far left, and then too far right as they approached the airport.

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Image From the cabin forward

The tests could go a long way toward explaining an erratic flight path of the doomed flight in its final moments.

Friday's document release also revealed that the pilot, Richard Conry, decided he wouldn't make the ill-fated flight after receiving a weather briefing early on the morning of Oct. 25.

After receiving the briefing, Conry told a specialist at the Princeton Flight Service Station, "You know what? I don't think I'm going to take this flight."

But an hour later -- shortly after 8 a.m. -- he called back to file a flight plan for the flight, even though the clouds at his destination had dropped from about 2,000 feet to about 900 feet.

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Image How a VOR works

Conry's change of heart came after a discussion with a campaign scheduler for Wellstone who, after being told the chances of landing at Eveleth were "50-50," told Conry , "Well, let's try it."

Before leaving from St. Paul Downtown Airport, a pilot, who had just arrived from Duluth, had spoken to Wellstone about weather conditions. He told Wellstone, in the last days of a close re-election campaign, that "the weather was at minimums, but the pilots could handle it," the report said.

The NTSB documents appear to clear the aircraft itself from any catastrophic failure, despite witness accounts who say they thought the plane's two engines were failing.

But an examination of the engines "found no evidence of pre-existing failure. Evidence of normal operation at impact was documented in both engines," the report said.

The documents also cast doubt on the flying ability of Conry. On a flight three days before the fatal flight, Conry mistakenly activated the wrong switch and caused the plane to pitch downward during the climb; the co-pilot corrected his action, but appeared to question Conry's ability.

On the way back from Rochester, Conry took the radio allowing his co-pilot to fly and on the radio falsely identified his plane as a Citation jet. He was flying the King Air turbo-prop.

On the day of the crash Wellstone and his entourage were traveling to Eveleth to attend the funeral of the father of long-time friend Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia. Later, Wellstone was to take part in a campaign debate with his challenger, former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman.

The NTSB may hold a public meeting to discuss the staff report, NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm said. The board will vote on the staff's findings about the crash, and may make safety recommendations that could be adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration. Minneapolis attorney Charlie Hvass Jr., who specializes in aviation litigation but is not involved with the Wellstone crash case, says now that the NTSB has made public its investigatory finding, attorneys for the victims' families can be preparing what he expects will be millions of dollars in lawsuits.

Aviation Charter, the company that operated the flight declined to comment.

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