Investigation begins after company loses two planes in a day

Thursday, April 10, 2003

SWANTON, Ohio -- The National Transportation Safety Board opened an investigation Wednesday after an Ohio charter airline lost two small planes in separate accidents in a single day, killing three people.

The accidents, which happened Tuesday 400 miles apart, both involved Dassault Aviation Falcon 20s operated by Grand Aire Inc. The airline voluntarily suspended flights Wednesday.

"We can't draw any inference beyond this being a coincidence," NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said. "At the moment they are being handled as separate events."

The first plane crashed about a mile short of the runway at the Toledo airport, killing all three people on board. Five hours later, the second plane splashed down in the Mississippi River, not far from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Both crew members were rescued; one was in serious condition and the other was listed as fair.

The causes of the accidents had not been determined, although the plane that went down in St. Louis was low on fuel, said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory.

Terrorism not suspected

Police and the FBI there said they had no reason to suspect terrorism. Officials have listed the arch as a potential terrorism target.

"You can't calculate the odds," said Dick Williams, president of Aviation Data Source, a Denver aviation maintenance consulting company. "You have to immediately ask questions about what is in common about these two events."

Officials in St. Louis praised pilots Saleem Iqbal and Mohammed Saleh for purposely flying clear of populated areas after their plane ran out of fuel.

"This is a case of heroism, not terrorism," said Tom Bush, head of the St. Louis FBI office.

Bush also credited Saleh with pulling Iqbal -- who could not swim -- from the wreckage and safeguarding him until rescuers arrived.

Saleh was a native Libyan who was a naturalized U.S. citizen, and Iqbal was a resident alien from Pakistan, authorities said Wednesday.

NTSB investigator Bob Hancock said the plane that crashed in Toledo aborted its first landing attempt, but he did not know why.

The crashes were the fifth and sixth for Toledo-based Grand Aire since 2000, according to NTSB records. Five involved the Falcon 20s, which account for half of company's 26 planes.

No one was killed in the other Falcon 20 crashes. The company, which carries both cargo and passengers, had a fatal crash last year involving another type of plane.

A flag outside the company's offices at Toledo Express Airport flew at half-staff Wednesday. An employee said no one from the company was available to comment.

Grand Aire primarily delivers auto parts and other cargo and operates a charter passenger service. It has about 50 employees and 10 to 15 flights a day from Toledo.


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