Investigators of the private-jet crash that killed billionaire Lewis Katz discovered that the sports mogul’s personal pilots almost never performed the required pre-flight safety checks when shuttling their boss around the country.
There were only two occasions out of the last 176 trips of Katz’s Gulfstream IV in which the pilots bothered to fully test the flight controls before takeoffs, according to preliminary reports released Wednesday by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
While the NTSB isn’t yet ready to assign definitive blame for the cause of the crash, the hundreds of pages of documents it released paint a picture of two pilots repeatedly failing to follow basic safety procedures. That includes on their final voyage May 31, which ended with the plane skidding off a Boston- area runway and bursting into flames, killing the pilots, a flight attendant, Katz and three other passengers.
“One of the main reasons that aviation is as safe as it is today is because of rigid checklist adherence,” said John Cox, a former airline pilot who is now president of consulting company Safety Operating Systems. “It is vitally important. The fact that a crew would not do that is disappointing.”
The documents show that the aircraft made by Gulfstream, a unit of General Dynamics Corp., is also under scrutiny. The plane’s flight controls were locked during the takeoff and the company had designed its plane so that it should have been impossible to attempt a takeoff in that condition. The company acknowledged to the NTSB that the system didn’t perform as designed, according to the documents.
Gulfstream can’t comment while the investigation is under way, Steve Cass, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Testing whether a plane’s flight controls are working is one of the most elementary safety checks, with pilots making sure all their controls can move normally and completely before beginning every takeoff. Katz’s pilots had done so only about 1 percent of the time, according to the NTSB.
In addition to the two full tests of the flight controls, the pilots did partial checks 16 times out of 176 flights examined, the NTSB said. Those checks were logged by a computer that recorded flight data.
‘Lock Is On’
Without the check, the pilots didn’t realize it was impossible to lift the nose during takeoff because the controls were locked. The first indication they had that they couldn’t lift off came 29 seconds after they began accelerating as they reached about 150 miles (241 kilometers) an hour.
“Lock is on,” Michael De Vries, who was at the controls, said, according to a transcript of the plane’s cockpit recorder. He repeated the comment six more times as they sped down the runway.
The crew waited 10 more seconds and reached a maximum speed of about 185 mph before trying to stop, according to NTSB data.
“I can’t stop it,” De Vries said 7 seconds before final impact. “Oh no no.”
On the night of the May 31 crash, Katz’s group was delayed and the attempted departure from Bedford, Massachusetts, for Atlantic City, New Jersey, didn’t happen until 9:39 p.m. The pilots began to move the plane without unlocking the flight controls, including panels at the rear of the jet that lift the nose at takeoff, according to the NTSB.
As they taxied out to the runway, the pilots got a warning light indicating that the rudder at the back of the plane wasn’t working, which would have made side-to-side control of the aircraft more difficult. While the pilots commented on the alert, according to the crash-proof cockpit voice recorder, they didn’t bother to investigate.
In addition to the regular flight-control check, Gulfstream also advises pilots to perform a second test of the device that lifts the nose, known as the elevator. Once a plane on a runway reaches 69 miles (111 kilometers) an hour, pilots should ensure that it works. That also wasn’t done, according to the NTSB.
James McDowell, 61, of Georgetown, Delaware, was the chief pilot and director of maintenance for the company that operated the plane. He had been associated with the owners of the plane for 27 years. The night of the accident, he was acting as co- pilot.
The captain was De Vries, 44, of Marlton, New Jersey. He had worked for the company for 12 years.
The plane was owned by SK Travel LLC of North Carolina. Katz was listed as a manager along with Emil Solimine.
A contract pilot who had occasionally flown with De Vries told the NTSB he didn’t bother with checklists during his flights. Checklists are required at various times during a flight, such as before takeoff, to ensure that pilots don’t forget anything.
A factor that may have contributed to the pilots’ actions is Gulfstream’s design of the plane, which the company said wasn’t properly certified.
Like most aircraft, the Gulfstream IV has a device that locks the flight controls while the plane is on the ground to prevent damage from wind. It’s known as a gust lock.
Because an attempted takeoff with the flight controls locked can be catastrophic, Gulfstream was required to make it impossible for such a mistake to occur. It did so by preventing the throttles from moving if the gust lock was engaged.
The NTSB found during the investigation it was possible in some cases to get increased power from the engines with the flight controls locked. The manufacturer didn’t test the gust lock to ensure that it would work properly, according to NTSB.
Katz, 72, had flown to Bedford to attend an event at the Concord, Massachusetts, home of Richard Goodwin and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Katz, a lawyer and businessman, once owned the New Jersey Nets basketball team, New Jersey Devils hockey team and ran billboard and parking-lot companies. He won control of the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper and its sister publication at a court-ordered auction less than a week before the crash.
“Nearly a year after the tragedy, we continue to mourn his loss, but Lewis’ spirit and vision live on in so many ways around this company,” H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, owner of Philadelphia Media Network Inc., said in an e-mailed statement. Katz was a partner in the company that bought the Inquirer and other businesses.
The other passengers killed in the accident were Susan Asbell, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Marcella Dalsey, of Williamstown, New Jersey; and Anne Leeds of Longport, New Jersey. Flight attendant Teresa Ann Benhoff, of Easton, Maryland, also died.
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