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"Neglect and Failures Imperil Small Cargo Flights"
Sunday, December 24, 2006
Neglect and Failures Imperil Small Cargo Flights
By Ronnie Greene
The Miami (FL) Herald
After his cargo plane crashed aside a North Carolina prison in near
darkness, all eyes turned toward pilot John "Skip" Wilkens. First the prison
guards, who pulled their weapons, fearing he was trying to spring an inmate.
Then inspectors, who suspected Wilkens was at fault.
There were few other explanations for the Piper falling from the sky starved
of fuel. "I screwed up," the former Marine Corps pilot convinced himself.
Thirty-four days later the same plane crashed, again starved of fuel, with a
different pilot -- Brian Keith Hardee, who was bruised and scarred. Only
then was the true culprit found for both crashes: a faulty pump, which
deprived the engine of fuel. Worse, the mechanical breakdown had been missed
by inspectors for the company and the Federal Aviation Administration.
"Keith's accident should never have happened," Wilkens said. "Every time I
see him and look at the scars on his face, I am very, very upset."
The case is emblematic of an industry fraught with faulty maintenance,
shoddy equipment, company errors and lax FAA oversight, endangering pilots
and the public. The air cargo industry has evolved into the deadliest form
of commercial aviation in the United States, with nearly one fatal crash a
month, The Miami Herald revealed in July.
But a review of nonfatal accidents -- with most fuselages intact and pilots
alive to tell the story -- reveals even more problems in a perilous
Air cargo planes have been in 166 nondeadly U.S. accidents since 2000, the
newspaper found, injuring 59 people, 21 seriously, in a business that has
long resisted major safety reforms.
Some were as simple as a plane's nose clipping an object on the runway or
skidding in snow. Yet others were serious crashes that left pilots in the
hospital and barely averted tragedy on the ground.
The newspaper found:
--In one of every 10 accidents, the planes were deprived of fuel -- "fuel
starvation" or "fuel exhaustion" in government parlance.
One splashed down on Sunny Isles Beach. Another pilot lost power in the air
in Ohio and, avoiding homes and schools, crashed in a cornfield and broke
The problem has persisted so long the FAA was pressed 15 years ago to issue
more directives telling pilots how to deal with fuel emergencies. The agency
refused, and planes continue to fall dry from the sky.
--In one of every four accidents, planes suffered mechanical failings that
had gone undetected by company ground crews or FAA inspectors, the newspaper
In 15 cases, maintenance crews signed off on inspections only to have the
plane crash hours later with mechanical defects -- long-deteriorating
landing gears, engine pistons and propeller blades.
--Some operators encountered so many maintenance problems the FAA hit them
with fines, records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show. Yet
the operators continued to fly and crash.
Larry's Flying Service, a carrier in Alaska, a bustling cargo state that is
home to more than a quarter of all nonfatal accidents, has been fined nine
times since 1990 -- with three accidents since 2000 and a fatality in 1999.
THE FAA'S FOCUS
To safety experts, these trends are no surprise: The FAA devotes most
resources to passenger planes, leaving small cargo carriers, which transport
everything from business letters to car parts to medical supplies, to
operate largely under an honor system.
More than a dozen times, accidents were caused by flawed landing gear or
propellers. In 12 cases, shoddy maintenance and company oversight were cited
Those deficiencies -- coming on planes that average 27 years -- create
breakdowns that lead to accidents, a sequence of failings that rarely occur
in more tightly regulated airlines.
"It's a lot easier for things to slide by," said John J. Goglia, who served
on the National Transportation Safety Board from 1995-2004. "It just sort of
sits there and waits for the right set of circumstances to go wrong."
On April 26, 2001, a Cessna 208B suffered heavy damage after an emergency
landing in a field in Plattsburgh, New York, forced it to nose over.
An inquiry found the propeller-reversing lever was installed on the wrong
side, an error that triggered the crash -- and was missed in an inspection
by the Tennessee company just five flight hours before takeoff.
On July 29, 2001, in Colorado, a pilot about to land noticed the landing
gear hanging at an angle. When he touched ground, the nose gear collapsed,
and the NTSB discovered the equipment had failed due to wear and tear. Just
22 flight hours earlier, the nose gear passed inspection.
The company, American Aviation of Salt Lake City, has been fined seven times
in five years for safety violations.
On May 19, 2000, a pilot was injured when his cargo plane began to vibrate
violently and he had to abort takeoff in Colorado, an accident attributed to
severe propeller blade deterioration and fatigue. Just two hours earlier,
the plane was inspected -- with propeller blades passing review by in-house
Experts say the culture of the industry explains why air cargo flies in the
most crash-prone family of commercial aviation, with an accident rate 10
times higher than larger airlines in 2005.
For pilot Gary Reins, who crashed in treacherous weather with faltering
equipment in South Dakota in 2001, the trauma remains.
"Fortunately I didn't die in the crash, which I should have," Reins said.
"It was a flaming inferno."
FALLING FROM THE SKY
At least 18 times since 2000, The Miami Herald found, U.S. air cargo planes
crashed after flying on fumes.
Some came down with empty tanks because of pilot error or company
cost-cutting pressure. Others fell after mechanical breakdowns starved the
planes of fuel that was available.
"How do we as professionals in aviation run out of fuel? It happens over and
over and over," said Goglia, the former NTSB official, who speaks to this
day of the problem.
Package Express, of Concord, N.C., is a carrier whose string of crashes
exemplifies the industry's hazards. Not once, but three times.
On June 17, 2003, in Fort Mill, S.C., pilot Derek Martin Davis, 27, ran out
of fuel on approach to landing, striking trees and power lines before
slamming into the ground and coming to rest in a resident's front yard.
With the plane on fire, the pilot tried escaping, but the right door
wouldn't open, forcing Davis -- the hair singed off his legs -- to dive out
of a baggage door. The NTSB blamed him for mismanaging the fuel supply.
The plane was ferrying bags of cargo and laboratory specimens, some of which
were being transported in a biohazard bag.
On Jan. 5, 2005, Package Express pilot 'Skip' Wilkens lost power at night,
and in darkness, brought a Piper down onto a berm along a perimeter fence at
Brown Creek Correctional Institution in Polkton, N.C.
Wilkens said the engine sputtered, indicating it was starved of fuel, yet
when he switched to the alternate fuel tanks it still lacked power. Unable
to make it to the airport, he scoured for a place to land, then readied
himself for a violent crash.
"I was asking God to take care of my kids when I was going down," Wilkens
said in an interview. "I honestly expected I was going to get hurt bad or
In the blackness, he brought the plane down with no injury and little
He had no idea his emergency destination was a prison's security area, where
he was greeted by armed guards. "They honestly thought I was trying to break
someone out of the prison," Wilkens said.
Package Express tested the engine for more than two hours, but was unable to
duplicate the problem. The company put the plane back in service. The FAA,
overseeing the inquiry, called it "an appropriate action," and Wilkens said
he was given the clear impression he was at fault.
Yet the carrier didn't send one of the most crucial pieces of equipment --
the fuel pump -- out for a detailed teardown.
One month later, in the same Piper, pilot Hardee lost engine power in the
sky and told the Concord Regional Airport tower he was "going down." He
crashed, hard, into a rock quarry, heavily damaging the plane and sending
him to the hospital.
A more thorough inspection turned up what had been missed: severe wear to
the fuel pump -- with an oversized seal that caused extensive leaking. "No
evidence of preventive maintenance was noted," NTSB files say.
It wasn't the last trouble for Package Express, which had a South Carolina
accident in December 2005 caused by faulty maintenance. It has since been
sold to another carrier that was fined last year over safety issues.
More than a quarter of crashes, like Hardee's, left injuries: 43 of the 166
Near Skwentna, Alaska last June, a Cessna U206F improperly carrying plywood
caught fire, bringing smoke into the cockpit and forcing a daring river
escape for pilot Mark Bills, who suffered burns on his head, face and hands
and torn knee ligaments.
His plane had not been inspected for a full year -- an unacceptable period
for passenger planes. Bills recently surrendered his operating certificate,
FAA records show. He did not respond to interview requests.
More than half of the no-fuel cases, 11 of 18, resulted in injuries. One, a
2004 crash onto a golf course in Kentucky, was fatal.
CLOSE CALL ON BEACH
In Sunny Isles Beach on Dec. 6, 2001, a cargo plane came down on the surf
amid high-rises and stunned beachgoers, injuring the pilot and copilot.
They had finished their Bahamas run when they lost power to both engines on
the 48-year-old Convair 340 operated by Trans Air Link Corp. The pilot
spotted a pier with lights, veered to the left, then made a splash-landing
just before 11 p.m. Nextday sunbathers were forced to navigate the hulking
The pilot "failed to note the low level of fuel in the fuel tanks before
departure," said the safety board, which also found inaccurate fuel quantity
gauges on the plane.
Hernando Gutierrez, president of Trans Air Link, which later shut down,
knows it could have turned deadly. "I could not believe it," he said.
Some operators with histories of crashes say they could not survive under
more rigorous safety regulations. "It can't be done where your markets are
that small; that's the bottom line," said Larry Chenaille, a pilot for 46
years and president of Alaska's Larry's Flying Service.
Yet others say maintenance must be given the same priority as shipping goods
"There are people who always want to go around the regulations," said
Miami's Gutierrez. "We cannot risk safety because of economics."
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