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Damage to Wellstone plane prevents early answers on cause

The Associated Press, 29 October 2002


EVELETH, Minn. - The chief federal investigator into the plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone said extensive damage to the aircraft has blocked any early answer into whether de-icing equipment was operating properly.

Frank Hilldrup took over Monday as head of the team of about 12 investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board who are trying to determine why the twin-engine Beech King Air A100 crashed and burned about 2 1/2 miles from the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport on Friday. By Tuesday, they were wrapping up their work at the site.

One question is whether ice built up on the plane, which would have affected flight. Hilldrup said they've learned that one pilot who departed from the airport at 11:30 a.m. Friday, about 50 minutes after the crash, reported a trace of icing to light icing after entering the cloud base, which was at about 1,000 feet.

At the airport, local pilots expressed doubt.

"There was little ice. It was normal, we see it all the time," said Don Sipola, a flight instructor with 25 years experience, who had checked the weather conditions the morning of the crash because he had planned to fly to St. Paul that afternoon.

NTSB officials have said the investigation could take months. They planned to stay in Eveleth through Thursday.

"We're going to go with anything and all to help us solve the accident," Hilldrup said.

The crash killed Wellstone, 58; his wife, Sheila, also 58; their daughter, Marcia Wellstone Markuson, 33; campaign staff members Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy and McLaughlin; pilot Richard Conry and co-pilot Michael Guess. They were on their way to a funeral.

Hilldrup said the landing gear appeared to be down. He also said all four flaps on the wings had been lowered to 15 degrees for landing, which would discount the possibility that an "asymmetrical" or uneven deployment of the flaps might have made it difficult for the pilots to control the plane. Flaps increase lift and slow planes down for landing.

Investigators are doing the routine "72-hour history" checks on what the pilots were doing before the flight, but they weren't aware of anything of concern in the pilots' backgrounds, he said.

They were also gathering up structural components that have been removed from the boggy crash site - including the Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines and propellers - and crating them up for shipment to the manufacturers or Washington.

NTSB officials removed most of the larger pieces from the crash site over the weekend and brought them to the hangar at the airport, but were still waiting Tuesday for an insurance company to check the tail section before they remove it from the site.

Most of what was left at the site was in small pieces, and investigators were sifting carefully to make sure they missed nothing. Steady snow slowed the work, though it melted as it hit the ground.

Among the unanswered questions are why the plane made a slow turn to the south, away from the airport, and why it descended at a steeper-than-normal angle, before it crashed into the heavily forested area. Witnesses have said the plane seemed to be flying low and sounded like it might be in trouble. Investigators have said the plane's last known airspeed was 85 knots, close to stall speed.

Copyright © 2002 Associated Press
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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