- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

A US Aiways commuter plane taking off in Charlotte, N.C., with 21 persons yesterday crashed into an airport hangar, killing everyone on board, authorities said. Although mechanical problems are suspected, the cause of the crash is still being investigated. It was the deadliest U.S. air accident in nearly 14 months.
US Airways Express Flight 5481, a Beech 1900 twin-engine turboprop, was taking off in clear, windy weather from Charlotte/Douglas International Airport when it hit the corner of the hangar at full throttle just before 9 a.m., officials said.
"The plane was climbing too steep," said Benjamin Witkege, 19, of Roanoke, who witnessed the accident with his girlfriend. "I told her, 'It looks like that plane is not doing right.'"
As they stopped to watch, the plane rolled over, crashed and burst into flames.
Nineteen passengers and two crew members were aboard the flight, which was operated by Air Midwest and headed to Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., according to Federal Aviation Administration officials.
The plane took off to the south and veered sharply back toward the airport before crashing into the US Airways hangar.
"The plane is so destroyed there's not much to see," said Charlotte police spokesman Keith Bridges. "It's just a horrible sight."
Three persons on the ground who initially were reported missing later were accounted for.
The pilot contacted the tower after takeoff and indicated an emergency, FAA spokesman Greg Martin said. "However, it was cut short and the emergency was never identified," Mr. Martin said.
The airplane is owned by Air Midwest but operates under contract as a US Airways Express shuttle. Maintenance and safety of the plane are the responsibility of Air Midwest, an FAA official said.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) dispatched a team of investigators. They will look into possible causes such as maintenance, flight history of the crew, airport operations, weather and certification of the aircraft, said Ted Lopatkiewicz, NTSB spokesman.
"Of course maintenance is something we look at at the beginning of every investigation," Mr. Lopatkiewicz said. "I wouldn't focus on that more than anything else at this stage."
Nevertheless, early suspicions focus on mechanical problems.
"Any airplane that crashes on takeoff, whether or not it [rolled] probably is a candidate for engine failure to look at," said Chuck Eastlake, an aerospace engineering professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
The NTSB also is searching for a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder.
There was no immediate indication of terrorism, the FBI said.
The plane was was manufactured in 1996 and had 15,000 hours of flight time and 21,000 takeoffs and landings, said Jonathan Ornstein, chief executive of Mesa Airlines, which owns Air Midwest.
"We do not know and cannot speculate about what happened to Flight 5481, which is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board," US Airways President David Siegel said in a statement. "Members of both US Airways' and Air Midwest's accident investigation teams are cooperating fully with the NTSB, the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies."
FAA officials and airline industry analysts discounted any concerns that US Airways' bankruptcy filing in August might have contributed to lax maintenance or that the airline would be further destabilized by the accident.
The FAA has increased its safety monitoring of US Airways since the bankruptcy filing, said Rebecca Trexler, FAA spokeswoman.
"We do increase our oversight during times of labor unrest or financial difficulty," she said.
The financial repercussions of the crash are expected to be minimal for Arlington-based US Airways, said Darryl Jenkins, director of George Washington University's Aviation Institute.
"Generally with things like this, you'll lose a week or two of bookings, then that's it," Mr. Jenkins said. "These things are not good. But this will not crash the airline."
The crash came after a year in which there were no deaths aboard a passenger or cargo airliner in the United States. It had been the third time in a decade that a year went by without a fatality on a commercial plane, according to the FAA.
The last fatal commercial accident was the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in New York on Nov. 12, 2001, in which 265 persons died.
US Airways' toll-free number for family members is 800/679-8215.
This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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