Plane & Pilot
Thursday, April 1, 2004

The Wellstone Accident

Even the bigger birds can stall and fall

The NTSB has released its final report on the October 25, 2002, accident in which U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and seven others were killed at Eveleth, Minn. The twin-engine turboprop King Air A100 didn’t have a cockpit voice recorder, so there was no possibility of investigators learning what the pilot and copilot might have said to each other about the way things were progressing during the VOR approach to Eveleth. Investigators had to rely on other things to figure out what caused the airplane to experience an aerodynamic stall at a critically low altitude. In reconstructing the accident scenario, investigators used radar data, ATC audiotapes, aircraft performance numbers, interviews and a large body of experience derived from investigating other accidents.

Investigators found that the flight crew failed to recognize two things that should’ve prompted an immediate go-around during the VOR approach to runway 27 into Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport (EVM): low airspeed and full needle deflection on the CDI. The flight crew should’ve been flying at no less than 120 knots. The airplane operator’s procedures called for a non-precision approach to be abandoned if the airspeed deviated by more than 10 knots below 500 feet AGL. The airspeed remained below the required speed for about 50 seconds, reaching a low of about 76 knots. Procedures also called for an approach to be abandoned with a CDI deflection of more than three-quarters scale.

According to FAA records, the pilot called the Princeton Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS) for an abbreviated weather briefing for the flight from St. Paul Downtown Airport (STP) at St. Paul, Minn., to Eveleth at about 7:16 on the morning of the accident. The AFSS specialist informed the pilot that AIRMETs for IFR and icing conditions were current over the entire route. He also stated that cloud conditions at EVM were reported as scattered at 1,000 feet and overcast at 2,000 feet, and that visibility was reported as four statute miles in light snow. He added that between STP and EVM, the cloud ceilings were reported between 300 and 600 feet, and visibility was one to four statute miles in light snow and mist.

The pilot then asked for freezing level information and weather information for Duluth (DLH), Minn., in case he had to land there as an alternate to EVM. The AFSS specialist indicated that at that time, DLH was reporting an overcast cloud ceiling of 500 feet and visibility of two statute miles in light snow and mist. He added that the terminal forecast indicated an overcast cloud ceiling of 500 to 900 feet and visibility of one to three statute miles in rain or snow. At about 7:19 a.m., the pilot stated, “You know what? I don’t think I’m going to take this flight.”

According to Senator Wellstone’s campaign scheduler, the pilot contacted her at about 7:20 a.m. and informed her that they might experience icing conditions during the flight. When she asked the pilot what he’d do if icing became a problem, he told her that the airplane was equipped with de-icing equipment and, if necessary, that he could turn back toward warmer air to melt the ice or divert to Duluth. She said that the pilot did not indicate that he was thinking of canceling the flight.

At about 7:30, the pilot contacted the Part-135 charter company’s headquarters and asked the receptionist to inform the company’s scheduling office that the senator’s flight would be delayed because of the weather.

The pilot then contacted the FBO at STP and advised them that he’d be departing at about 1 p.m., instead of 9:20 a.m., and asked to be sure that the airplane would be available at that time. But when the senator’s campaign scheduler talked to the pilot again at about 8:00, they agreed to go ahead with the flight as originally scheduled.

According to FAA records, at about 8:18, the pilot contacted the Princeton AFSS for a weather update. He learned that the AIRMETs for IFR and icing conditions were still current. The pilot filed an IFR flight plan.

The copilot was first to arrive at the FBO. He went to the hangar to get catering items for the flight and to preflight the airplane. The accident pilot arrived at STP shortly before 9:00. By that time, the senator and his staff were already at the airport.

According to FAA Air Traffic Control (ATC) records, the flight departed STP at about 9:37 and was cleared to proceed directly to EVM at 13,000 feet.


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