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Posted on Sat, Feb. 22, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Pilot wanted to cancel Wellstone's fatal flight

Pioneer Press

U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone was so nervous about the weather before takeoff on the morning of his fatal flight to Eveleth, Minn., that his pilot asked another pilot to reassure the senator that everything would be all right.

But Wellstone's pilot, Richard Conry, had himself expressed grave doubts about the weather that October morning — so much so that when he got his first weather briefing from the Federal Aviation Administration at 7:15 a.m., he wanted to cancel the flight.

"You know what, I don't think I'm going to take this flight," Conry told the weather briefer, according to a transcript of the conversation included in the National Transportation Safety Board's first major report on the Oct. 25 crash. The accident killed Wellstone; his wife, Sheila Wellstone; his daughter, Marcia Wellstone Markuson; and five others, including Conry.

The NTSB's "factual report" of the accident doesn't say what caused the twin-engine Beechcraft King Air A100 to crash just two miles southeast of the runway at Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport. The probable cause and contributing factors will be determined later by the safety panel's board members.

But the 2-inch-thick report does delve deeply into two issues that have concerned authorities since the investigation's early days: whether meteorological conditions on the morning of the crash could have caused killer ice to form on the plane's wings, and whether Conry and co-pilot Michael Guess — individually and as a team — were competent pilots.

U.S. Rep. James Oberstar of Chisholm, Minn., the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee and an expert on aviation, said he had been briefed on the NTSB report. After reading it, he said, he was concerned more than ever about icing and the flight crew's performance.

"It appears to me that it's ever more likely a combination of mechanical failures and pilot error — mechanical meaning icing, in which the crew loses control of the surfaces of the aircraft. And the history of the pilot — much of which was not available last fall, we didn't know all these facts about him — raises questions.

"I'm always hesitant to be critical of a pilot on a fatal crash because he's not here to defend himself," Oberstar said. "But you look at these pieces of information, and it begins to raise questions about competence in flight management."

The plane was owned by Aviation Charter Inc., of Eden Prairie. Attempts to reach the firm's president, Roger Wikner, were unsuccessful. A woman answering the telephone said he was not in and the company would have no comment.

Wellstone, a Democrat, was flying north from St. Paul to attend the funeral of a state lawmaker's father in Virginia, Minn. The crash came 11 days before the November election, in which Wellstone was battling for a third term in office against Republican challenger Norm Coleman.

Also killed in the crash was Mary McEvoy, a University of Minnesota professor and associate chairwoman of the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party; Thomas Lapic, Wellstone's deputy state director; William McLaughlin, a college student who was Wellstone's personal assistant and driver; and Guess, the co-pilot.

The NTSB report says all eight victims suffered multiple broken bones and internal injuries. Five of the victims died instantly on impact, but three of them — McLaughlin, McEvoy and Lapic — had evidence of smoke inhalation, meaning they survived the initial crash.

All the plane's seats had been ripped from their moorings.

The NTSB report makes clear that Conry was concerned about possible icing on the morning of the flight. If ice accumulates on an airplane's wings, it can make the plane harder to fly and can even cause it to crash.

The NTSB experts who examined the weather conditions on the morning of the flight determined that the airplane flew through light to moderate icing conditions as it descended from about 13,000 feet on its final approach to the Eveleth airport. Other planes flying in the area earlier that morning indicated they took on ice, but nothing severe.

The weather experts described the icing conditions as "typical, i.e., this was not a an extreme event,'' according to the report.

One of the experts from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., said there was evidence of super-cooled large droplets in the area. That type of extremely cold water can freeze instantly when it hits a surface, such as a wing.

That ice can be clear, so a pilot wouldn't see it. It also can be thin enough that a plane's de-icing system — in this case inflatable rubber boots on the leading edge of the wings — aren't able to break it off.

However, Ben Bernstein, an aviation research meteorologist at the Boulder facility who worked on the NTSB report, said there were indications super-cooled large droplets were in the vicinity, especially Duluth, but not necessarily at Eveleth.

"It's a possibility, but far from a certainty,'' Bernstein said. "It's one thing in the realm of possibility.''

Eric Doten, director of the Center for Aerospace Safety and Security Education at Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University in Daytona, Fla., said he recently heard an NTSB investigator state at a conference in Atlanta that icing would not be a factor in the crash.

However, Doten remains convinced icing will have some role in the crash.

"Like most accidents, it will be a combination of things,'' Doten said.

At 7:15 a.m. on the day of the flight, Conry called the Princeton aviation weather center and asked for a briefing. He was told there was mist, light snow, mixed icing and visibility of one to four miles.

"OK, you know what? I don't think I'm going to take this flight,'' Conry told the briefer.

Five minutes later, Conry called Wellstone's campaign scheduler to say he was worried there might be a problem with icing. It was the first of a flurry of phone calls between Conry, the Wellstone campaign and Aviation Charter staffers about what to do.

About 8:10 a.m., Conry called co-pilot Guess to say the trip was canceled. But he called back 20 minutes later to say the flight was on again because the weather had improved.

Conry's last cell phone call, at 8:45 a.m., was to the home of a fellow Aviation Charter co-pilot with whom he was close and would often call with concerns. The co-pilot, who was not home, told investigators the call "would lead her to believe Conry was concerned about the flight."

Conry arrived at the St. Paul airport about 9 a.m. and immediately approached a corporate pilot who was getting out of his plane after a flight from Duluth. Conry asked the pilot, Dexter A. Clarke, about the weather. Conry then asked Clarke to reassure Wellstone that the weather wouldn't pose a problem.

Conry called to get an updated weather briefing and was told that the winds at Eveleth were calm, visibility was three miles, light snow was falling and the cloud ceiling was at 900 feet.

"OK, that's what I need,'' Conry said. "At least, it's above my minimums.''

He filed a flight plan and was given permission to fly at 13,000 feet, above the icing layer. The flight took off about 9:35 a.m. and crashed about 10:22 a.m.

After the accident, one of the weather briefers told the NTSB that in their conversation, Conry sounded stressed and apprehensive about the flight, and he was concerned someone was putting pressure on Conry to make the flight.

In interviews with NTSB investigators, pilots who had flown with Conry alternately described him as careful and meticulous, or as unattentive and unable to control his airplane.

Questions also were raised about Guess. Not only was he inexperienced, he previously lost two pilot jobs because of poor performance.

One pilot who had flown with Conry was so concerned with his flying skills that after their flight together, he suggested to Conry that he retire.

Another described Conry as "too timid to be a captain," and one said Conry sometimes expressed a fear of not being able to "stay ahead" of the airplane. "Staying ahead of the airplane" is a phrase pilots use to describe the need to anticipate far in advance what actions they need to take to safely fly the plane.

Interviews with some of the pilots provided chilling examples of Conry's inattentiveness. One co-pilot said that on one flight, Conry was flying the plane when a passenger asked a question. The co-pilot turned to answer, and when he turned back toward the instrument panel, an oblivious Conry had the plane in a 45-degree bank and was descending at 1,000 feet per minute.

One co-pilot told the NTSB about another harrowing flight — again with Wellstone on board — just three days before the fatal trip. On the morning of Oct. 22, Conry and co-pilot Justin Lowe took off from St. Paul's Holman Field, en route to Rochester, Minn.

Just after taking off, Conry reached to turn on the yaw damper, a device that smoothes the plane's flight by automatically adjusting the rudder. But instead, he activated the autopilot, which caused the plane's nose to pitch downward. The plane was a mere 300 feet off the ground when it happened.

Conry called out, "What's going on?" Lowe recalled. Lowe quickly assessed the problem and disengaged the autopilot. He pulled the plane into a normal climb, and when the situation was under control, he told Conry that he had hit the wrong switch.

"Oh, that could have been pretty bad," Conry replied, according to the NTSB documents.

Lowe told investigators that on the return flight to St. Paul that afternoon, Conry made another mistake, repeatedly misidentifying what kind of plane he was flying, announcing it as a Cessna Citation — a twin-engine business jet — rather than the propeller-driven King Air.

Conry was corrected by an air traffic controller who said, "You wouldn't happen to be in a King Air today would you?" Conry acknowledged the errors and apologized. Conry had last flown in a King Air three weeks earlier.

The NTSB documents also reinforce earlier reports about dishonesty in Conry's background. For instance, on a medical application form he submitted in 1992, Conry failed to acknowledge his 1990 felony convictions in a real estate financing scheme, the agency said. Conry checked "No" under Item W, "History of other nontraffic convictions (misdemeanors or felonies)," on the form.

On a medical form he filled out in 1989, Conry denied having a waiver for defective distant vision, despite acknowledging the waiver during earlier FAA medical exams with other doctors, according to the documents.

Like all pilots, Conry kept logbooks of every flight he was on beginning in 1978. Those logbooks are used by the FAA and airlines to determine how many flying hours a pilot has, and in what type of aircraft they have flown. However, in 1994, shortly after finishing a prison sentence, Conry told the FAA he had lost all of his logbooks and asked for permission to "reconstruct" his flight hours.

But after his death, NTSB investigators received all of Conry's logbooks from his wife, including those supposedly lost.

"He was probably trying to hide the gap in his experience,'' said Doten, of Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University. "My guess was he went a considerable amount of time without flying.''

In addition, when he applied for his job at Aviation Charter, he told them he had worked at American Eagle and logged 514 hours as a co-pilot there. In fact, in one of his logbooks, he accurately logged that he received only 14.4 hours of flight training and six hours of revenue flight time with American Eagle, according to the report.

Doten said a pilot who lies, especially about his flying experience, is not someone an aviation company would want in their organization.

"It sounds like he had all the earmarks of being a bad apple,'' Doten said.

David Hanners and Tom Majeski contributed to this report. Charles Laszewski can be reached at claszewski@pioneer or (651) 228-5458.
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