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Report says Wellstone pilot worried about icing before takeoff

Saturday, February 22, 2003

The Associated PressWASHINGTON -- A pilot who died in the crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone near a Minnesota airfield last year wanted to cancel the flight because of possible icing, according to information made public Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Why Richard Conry changed his mind is unclear.

According to one preflight specialist, he decided to fly after learning the weather had improved. He even went out of his way to make sure Wellstone, a nervous flier, was comfortable about taking the flight, according to a pilot who spoke to Wellstone before takeoff.

But Steven Thornton, a Federal Aviation Administration preflight specialist, said he feared somebody may have pressured Wellstone's pilot to fly the senator to a funeral in northeastern Minnesota during the last days of his close re-election campaign.

After Wellstone's death, former Vice President Walter Mondale accepted the Democratic candidacy. His short campaign failed, and Republican Norm Coleman won a vital seat in his party's takeover of the Senate.

The board didn't draw any conclusions, but the report suggested investigators think ice on the wings may have contributed to the crash near Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, the plane's destination.

The National Weather Service had advised pilots that icing was possible that day.

The King Air A100 crashed about 2 1/2 miles from the airport, killing everyone aboard: Wellstone, D-Minn.; his wife, Sheila; their 33-year-old daughter, Marcia Wellstone Markuson; and five others.

The pilots on the chartered plane did not report icing during the flight, but air traffic controllers in Duluth said other planes in the area had moderate to light rime icing that morning, according to transcripts released as part of the report.

Investigators also suggested the pilots may not have realized they should have activated deice boots, which cause ice to break clean from aircraft surfaces, at the first sign of an ice buildup. Activating the boots as soon as ice is seen is a new recommended procedure that resulted from recent NASA research, the NTSB said.

Interviews with pilots at the charter company, Aviation Charter, "indicated that there were no clear standardized procedures as to how much ice should accumulate prior to operation of the deice boots," the report said.

Ice on a plane's wing disrupts the air flow and can cause the wing to lose its lift and the plane suddenly to change course.

Toxicological reports revealed no evidence of drug or alcohol use by Conry or the first officer, Michael Guess. The NTSB said it believes, based on radio transmissions, that Conry was at the controls when the plane went down.

The report hinted at other possible causes, including inaccurate navigational aids and human error. On a flight three days before the fatal flight, Conry mistakenly activated the wrong switch and caused the plane to pitch downward during the climb; the co-pilot corrected his action.

Some co-pilots told investigators they were uncertain about his skill level, but a flight to check his proficiency two days before the crash went smoothly.

NTSB staff will draft a report that analyzes the accident and proposes conclusions about what caused it.

The board may hold a public meeting to discuss the staff report, NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm said. The board will vote on the staff's findings about the crash, and may make safety recommendations that could be adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration.

------On the Net

  • National Transportation Safety Board: www.ntsb.gov


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