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Four months later, questions remain in Wellstone crash probe
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The plane crash site (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
The recent release of hundreds of pages of National Transportation Safety Board documents still leaves many unanswered questions about what happened to the flight that killed Paul Wellstone and seven others last October. It will likely be months before the NTSB issues a final report on the crash. Although no clear cause has yet emerged, several areas stand out as possible factors. They include weather, pilot incompetence and problems with navigational equipment at the Eveleth- Virginia Airport.

St. Paul, Minn. — What's been made public about the Wellstone plane crash leaves aviation experts not associated with the inquiry hard pressed to understand what went wrong the morning of Oct. 25.

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Image John Kaukola's account

Why, after an otherwise uneventful flight to northeastern Minnesota, did the plane carrying when Sen. Wellstone, his wife, daughter, three campaign aides, and two pilots crash just short of the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport? "It seems almost like one of those unsolved mysteries," says Jeff Johnson, an assistant professor of aviation at St. Cloud State University. He's also a pilot who's logged nearly 3,000 hours, including several hundred flying planes similar to the one in which Paul Wellstone and the others died. "There's things I ask myself like, my goodness, this is a very durable airplane, you have an experienced captain aboard that airplane, it went down suddenly like this at low altitude, no distress call and a call was made to the Eveleth airport reporting that they were "X" miles from the airport and it happened that fast," says Johnson.

Unlike many high profile aviation accident investigations, the struggle to determine what went wrong with the Wellstone flight is handicapped on several fronts. There were no black box pilot voice or data recordings -- they weren't required -- and fire destroyed most of the wreckage.

What is clear from National Transportation Safety Board data is that just miles away from the runway, the plane left its approach course to the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, and that minutes before plunging into the ground at a steep pitch, the plane was flying dangerously close to the speed at which it could easily lose its ability to remain aloft.

On the scene in Eveleth last fall, trying to make sense of the wreckage immediately following the Oct. 25 crash, then acting NTSB Chairwoman Carol Carmody said investigators wanted to know why the plane turned away from the airport and why it was going so slowly.

"All we know is what the data shows about the direction and the speed of the aircraft and we don't understand why that occurred so we need to find that out. We don't know what was going on in the cockpit or with the pilot or with the controls but we're going to try and find out," she said at the time.

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Image Pilot Jeff Johnson

With apparently so little hard evidence, accounts from local residents who saw and heard the plane in its last moments of flight, may be of particular importance to the effort to figure out what happened. NTSB investigators interviewed several people about what they saw and heard.

Among them is John Kaukola, who was tending to his horse the morning of Oct. 25. "See how quiet it is? You don't hear nothing. This is just like it was," he told Minnesota Public Radio recently.

Kaukola lives few miles from the crash site, just south of the Eveleth-Virginia east-west runway, on the approach the NTSB says Wellstone's plane was initially lined up on. Kaukola says he's been watching planes, often from his backyard deer stand, for more than 10 years.

Kaukola never actually saw Wellstone's plane but he says he tracked the roar from its twin engines for several miles. He says he's seen numerous planes well off course on the way into to the Eveleth-Virginia airport and that Wellstone's plane seemed to be flying the correct approach.

"I was listening because there was nothing else to listen to and I heard them going, and going," he says.

All of the sudden, well before the plane should have been at the airport, Kaukola says the roar from the engines was gone. "The sound really went down; not like they shut it off, not like the engine's quit. He just eased back on the throttle and I thought, 'Boy, he powered back soon," and I turned my back away and then I heard the boom."

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Image What Megan heard

Closer to the crash site -- about a mile away -- Megan Williams tells a similar story. She was resting that Friday morning with her bedroom window partially open when she heard the plane. Like Kaukola, an abrupt drop in engine noise right before the crash caught Williams' attention.

"When that split second of silence was there, then it was a soft kind of boom," she says.

According to recently released NTSB information, the plane's engines were running at the time of the crash, but for some reason they were running at low power.

Early on investigators said they thought the main landing gear had been lowered. The last they said about the plane's deicing equipment is that they couldn't tell whether it had been deployed because fire so badly destroyed the wreckage.

It sounded to Williams like the plane was heading away from the airport, which it was in its final moments of flight. The wreckage lay roughly two miles southeast of the runway.

So why was the plane off course and why was it flying so slowly?

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Image Staying on course

The radio beacon at the Eveleth-Virginia airport was not working perfectly. Common at mid-size airports, Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Radio -- VOR -- signals help pilots line up with runways several miles out from airports. The Federal Aviation Administration ordered the Eveleth-Virgina beacon out of service after the accident.

The day after the crash, FAA pilots tested the VOR. The inspection pilots reported to the NTSB that when they flew the approach without their automatic pilot engaged, the VOR repeatedly brought them about a mile south of the airport. In one written statement an FAA pilot told the NTSB that the signal guided him one to two miles left or south of the runway. That's the same direction Wellstone's plane was heading when it crashed.

Still, based on its late October testing, the FAA concluded the VOR was only "slightly out of tolerance" -- just 1.1 degrees off. Nearly two months later, different FAA inspection pilots retested the VOR at the Eveleth-Virginia Airport. The late December tests, according to the FAA, found the VOR signal, over several attempts with and without automatic pilot appropriately positioned them for landing. And yet, the beacon is still not been put back into service.

The director of flight operations at the University of North Dakota's School of Aerospace Sciences, Alan Palmer, says the FAA test discrepancies combined with the fact the VOR is still out of service at the airport indicate to him that officials remain concerned about the signal's accuracy.

"I'm sure the FAA is trying to be as conservative as possible. I'm sure they don't want a repeat of the Wellstone crash," Palmer says.

Palmer says VOR problems, either from the signal itself or from erroneous interpretation of the signal, would not by itself cause a plane crash. But he says if Wellstone's plane was directed well south of the airport moments before landing, it could have been very confusing for the pilots and led them to make a very serious mistake.

"If they were that far off course, then that would have meant that the airport probably wasn't off of the nose of the airplane and having said that, maybe they started to look around for the airport and during that process of looking around, both pilots were looking and perhaps they forgot to fly the aircraft."

The FAA declined to make the inspection pilots available to Minnesota Public Radio. In response to MPR's initial inquiry, the agency discounted the discrepancy in the results of its VOR testing. An FAA spokeswoman says the agency is now reviewing the testing information with the involved inspection pilots.

Other pilots who flew into Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport the day of the Wellstone crash reported experiencing no major problems with the VOR signal. Since the crash, much of the speculation has centered on the possibility that ice collected on the plane making it difficult to fly.

There were, before and after the crash, reports of icing conditions in the area. But pilots who flew there that day reported only moderate icing at worst. Still, the pilot in command of the Wellstone flight, Capt. Richard Conry, called off the trip after his first weather briefing.

According to NTSB documents, Conry changed his mind about cancelling the flight after talking to Wellstone staffers.

"What we look at is the different weather data that's available for the case," says aviation research meteorologist Ben Bernstein, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which analyzed the weather at the time of the crash at the request of the NTSB.

It's hard for anybody who's flown before to understand that a pilot would let their airplane get that slow.
- Jason Rivera, pilot

He declined to discuss whether icing could have brought down the plane. But Bernstein told Minnesota Public Radio that his analysis for the NTSB concluded icing was not likely a major problem at the time the plane crashed.

"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," according to Bernstein. If heavy ice wasn't a factor, could there have been a mechanical catastrophe?

Although fire destroyed much of the aircraft, the NTSB does know the plane was apparently in good shape just hours before its last flight.

"I'm confident that when I left the aircraft that to the best of my knowledge that airplane was in fine working order," says Jason Rivera, who piloted the same King Air on a round trip to North Dakota which ended at the St. Paul Airport around 7 p.m. the evening before the crash.

At the time Rivera was a captain for Aviation Charter. He now works for Japan Airlines.

Rivera says he doesn't recall whether he used the King Air's deicing equipment on its second to last trip. He does remember though there were no maintenance concerns related to the plane.

"I flew it a couple of times that week and there were no problems with the airplane at all and I know that it had flown quite a bit up to that date and when we check in for a flight we always look in the logbook to look at previous write-ups on the airline just so that we're familiar with anything that may have been occurring repeatedly or something that another pilot had experienced within the last few flights so we can be vigilant and look for that problem again and there was nothing to that effect," Rivera says.

Rivera, who's worked as a commercial pilot instructor, says it's incomprehensible to him the plane was flying so slowly. The NTSB had reported that the last radar check clocked the plane at 85 knots. Rivera suspects that neither pilot was watching the instruments, in particular the airspeed indicator.

"It's hard for anybody who's flown before to understand that a pilot would let their airplane get that slow -- probably 40 knots too slow -- on an approach because at 85 knots that airplane is probably barely flying really," Rivera says.

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Image A question of fatique?

The owners of Aviation Charter failed to return repeated phone calls from Minnesota Public Radio. It's the second time in five years the company has had to deal with a deadly accident. The last time a King Air 100 crashed with fatalities, it was an Aviation Charter flight attempting a landing in Colorado. The sole pilot and one of his two passengers were killed. The NTSB blamed that crash on pilot error.

Immediately following the Wellstone crash, the charter company issued a news release saying Capt. Richard Conry, who was believed to be flying at the time of the crash, had more than 5,000 hours of flying time. But recently released NTSB information suggests Conry exaggerated his experience and that he kept multiple logbooks.

Recently released NTSB information raises doubt Conry's competence, revealing numerous incidents of the former pilot's cockpit mistakes.

Just three days before the crash, Conry, who was flying Wellstone to Rochester, accidentally engaged the autopilot on take-off, and later misidentified to air traffic controllers his twin engine plane as a Citation jet.

Sen. Wellstone jokingly told Conry to "get some rest." Wellstone also asked Conry if he would be flying him later that week.

Conry's widow, Johanne, did not respond to an interview request. She told the NTSB that on the day before the fatal flight, her husband flew a middle-of-the-night round trip to North Dakota and then, after resting at home, left for several hours to work at his second job as a nurse.

Mrs. Conry told investigators that her husband got home at about 9:30 the night before his last flight and that he slept for at least eight hours.

"The worry I have there is just the fatigue factor because a tired pilot is going to make mistakes," says Minneapolis attorney Charlie Hvass Jr., who specializes in aviation litigation. Hvass is not investigating the Wellstone crash, but he's following case.

"When there's two pilots and apparently everything working on the airplane... I mean this aircraft will fly very well on one engine. It's got two sets of instruments. There's no explanation for it other than neither of them were flying the airplane. Nobody was looking at what was going on with the airplane. And most likely in a situation like that, they simply get the airspeed too low and by the time they realize it they've stalled and gone in," says Hvass.

"When the NTSB does come to a conclusion, whether it's a final conclusion or whether it's left hanging, there will be several issues that will play into this," says aviation risk expert Todd Curtis, formerly an air safety analyst with the Boeing Company, who now tracks airplane accidents and publishes the Web site

Unlike many small plane crashes, Curtis says by nature of the fact Wellstone was a U.S. senator, the crash is the subject of an extraordinary investigation. And Curtis is confident the NTSB will identify several potential contributory factors to the accident.

"It will not be just one issue that led to this event. And what those several issues are there are some obvious candidates; icing, landing aid out of tolerance, but it may turn out that those obvious issues have nothing to do with what happened," he says.

Knowing what happened to Wellstone's plane would help provide closure to last fall's tragic deaths. There are also major financial implications. The cause of the crash will become the basis for millions of dollars in wrongful deaths lawsuits which are expected to be filed on behalf of the victims' families.

MPR reporter Elizabeth Stawicki contributed to this story

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