- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pilot error caused the plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and seven others, investigators said yesterday.

Investigators told the National Transportation Safety Board that the twin-propeller King Air A100 stalled when it slowed down too quickly while approaching Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport in northern Minnesota on Oct. 25, 2002. The plane lost altitude, veered sharply, sheared off treetops and crashed 2 miles short of the runway.

“The flight crew did not monitor and maintain minimum speed,” NTSB Aircraft Performance Group Chairman Charlie Pereira told the board, which will vote on whether to accept the finding.

Mr. Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, their 33-year-old daughter, Marcia Wellstone Markuson, three campaign workers and the pilot and co-pilot died. They were traveling to a funeral.

The crash occurred less than two weeks before Election Day. After Mr. Wellstone’s death, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale accepted the Democratic candidacy. Republican Norm Coleman won the seat that Mr. Wellstone had held for nearly 12 years.

The weather on the day of the crash was cloudy and cold. Crash investigators looked at whether icing on the wings contributed to the accident, but discounted that possibility and focused instead on pilot Richard Conry, 55, and co-pilot Michael Guess, 30.

John Clark, the NTSB’s director of aviation safety, said Mr. Conry and Mr. Guess were flying too high and too fast as they began their approach. They slowed down too much as they tried to make up for the mistake, he said. The plane went from 190 mph to 87 mph in the final 90 seconds of the flight.

It’s not clear why the pilots didn’t realize the plane was moving too slowly.

“One of them should have been monitoring the instruments,” said Bill Bramble, a human-performance investigator for the NTSB.

Interviews conducted after the crash revealed shortcomings in the proficiency of both pilots, investigators said.

During the course of the probe, investigators learned of two instances in which co-pilots took the controls away from Mr. Conry as he flew the senator to appearances. Three days before the fatal crash, Mr. Conry activated the wrong switch and caused the plane to pitch downward during the climb. The co-pilot corrected his action.

When the plane landed, Mr. Wellstone jokingly told Mr. Conry to “get some sleep.”

In August, the families of the Wellstones and the campaign workers reached a $25 million settlement with Aviation Charter Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn., which operated the flight. Company attorney Mike Lindberg said the settlement was not an acknowledgment of pilot error or responsibility by company management but “a way to avoid ongoing litigation.”


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