- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 6, 2002


The federal investigation of the plane crash that killed Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan found that his pilot son, Randy, became disoriented and lost control of his Cessna 335, in part because the key instrument guiding him through darkness, rain and fog malfunctioned.

The National Transportation Safety Board yesterday issued its final report on the crash, which occurred on Oct. 16, 2000, in wooded hills south of St. Louis. The governor, his son and aide Chris Sifford were killed.

Mel Carnahan died three weeks before the election in which he sought the Senate seat held by Republican John Ashcroft, now the attorney general. Mr. Carnahan's name remained on the ballot and he defeated Mr. Ashcroft. His widow, Jean, was appointed to serve the first two years of the six-year term that would have been his.

She now is campaigning for election in November to complete the term.

Investigators focused on the main instrument Randy Carnahan used to navigate, the primary attitude indicator.

Also called the artificial horizon, the attitude indicator reports a plane's position in the air, telling the pilot whether a plane is banking and whether the nose is high or low.

NTSB investigators concluded that the primary attitude indicator "was not displaying properly at the time of impact," although they could not determine what caused the malfunction.

A smaller, secondary attitude indicator was working, investigators concluded. Thus, "the loss of the primary attitude indicator alone does not explain why the pilot lost control of the airplane and crashed," the report said.

Because the secondary instrument was smaller and located several feet away, Randy Carnahan would have had to turn his head frequently and rapidly for cross-checks with other instruments, probably causing "spacial disorientation" worsened by noise and turbulence from the storms, the report said.

A transcript of Randy Carnahan's conversation with air-traffic controllers, released last year by the NTSB, indicated that the pilot struggled with failed instruments.

The attitude indicators are powered by a vacuum pump and manifold system, which the victims' families blame in wrongful-death lawsuits for causing the instrument failure. Defendants in the case said negligence by Randy Carnahan led to the crash.

The NTSB concluded that because the secondary attitude indicator was working, and judging from parts found in the wreckage, "adequate vacuum existed for the airplane's instruments to operate."

But investigators said rotors that powered the primary indicator's display were not operating at a high enough velocity to keep it working properly.

An attorney for the Carnahan family, Gary Robb, noted the attitude indicator's failure and investigators' belief that Randy Carnahan experienced disorientation.

"You can't blame a car driver for not stopping when the brakes fail," Mr. Robb said.

A spokeswoman for Ohio-based Parker Hannifin Corp., which manufactures the vacuum system, said the NTSB report confirms the company's position.

"We think the finding of the NTSB is very clear," spokeswoman Lorrie Paul Crum said. "It certainly is a determination that none of Parker's components were part of the cause of the accident."

The report described Randy Carnahan as a safe and conscientious pilot. Investigators confirmed he was in excellent health and had completed extensive training in the Cessna 335.

The report also said Randy Carnahan was known to cancel trips when weather conditions were unfavorable.

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