‘Black Box’ Found as Reno Air Crash Toll Is Put at 67

Times Staff Writer

After removing 67 bodies from the pulverized remains of a chartered airliner that crashed here Monday, investigators from Washoe County and the National Transportation Safety Board Tuesday found important recording gear that may help explain what caused the accident.

The announcement of the discovery of the “black box"--cockpit voice and instrument data recorders that will be sent to Washington for analysis--came at the same time Federal Aviation Administration officials released a transcript of the Galaxy Airline pilot’s conversation with the control tower at Reno’s Cannon International Airport in the minutes before the crash.

The pilot, noting a vibration in the plane, requested permission to return to the airport and called for emergency equipment. But the four-engine turboprop never made it. Instead, it plowed into a grassy field, skidded into more than a dozen recreational vehicles in a sales lot and burst into flames, leaving wreckage strewn across U.S. 395, about a mile south of the city limits.

Only three passengers survived. The identities of those who died will not be released for several days, after positive identification of each is made, authorities said.

Earlier reports from sheriff’s spokesmen put the number of dead at between 64 and 69. Galaxy representatives here had said late Monday that 64 had died in the accident, the first major crash of a plane flying into or out of Cannon Airport.


However, Washoe County Sheriff Vince Swinney said Tuesday that investigators had searched through the wreckage all the way to the cabin floor and that 67 bodies had been found.

“That is final as far as we are concerned,” he said. “At the present time we are . . . satisfied we have found all the people who were on board.”

On the FAA tower recording, the last transmission from the Electra on the ground was at 1:01.45 a.m. when the pilot acknowledged clearance for takeoff. The trouble appeared barely two minutes later.

Pilot: “Galaxy 203 would like to make left downwind. We’ve got to get back on the ground.”

Tower: “Galaxy, say again.”

Pilot: “Yes, sir. We’d like to make a left downwind (unintelligible) vibration in the aircraft.”

Tower: “Galaxy 203 roger, ah, maintain VFR (visual flight rules), enter left downwind for runway one-six right. Ah, do you need the equipment?”

Pilot: “That’s affirmative.”

Tower: “Roger. How many people on board and say amount of fuel remaining.”

Pilot: “Sixty-eight and we got 12 fuel.”

Tower: “Sixty-eight people and 1,200 pounds of fuel?”

There was no response.

James E. Burnett, chairman of the NTSB, said slash marks on the ground showed that the turbo prop’s propellers had not come apart in the air as some had speculated.

However, he said one eyewitness with a background in aeronautics reported that the plane’s propellers sounded out of synchronization as it came down. Burnett said such a condition would account for the vibrations reported by the pilot as the plane was losing altitude.

Burnett also said one of the propellers had been reinstalled on the craft Jan. 8, after having been removed in mid-November because it had not been inspected within the time frame allotted by the FAA.

The propeller was reinstalled with FAA approval, even though the inspection apparently had not been performed, Burnett said.

“It was proper under the rules,” he said. “We will have to review that to see if it is good policy.”

Burnett added that there is still no evidence linking propeller problems to the plane’s crash.

Victims of the crash--most of the bodies intact but badly burned--were taken in refrigerated produce trucks from the crash site across town to an air-conditioned corrugated-metal building at the Nevada County Fairgrounds, where county Coroner Vern McCarty had established a temporary morgue.

Authorities said they were unaware if relatives of the victims had started to come to Reno, adding that there is little reason for them to do so.

“We have tried to discourage that,” McCarty said shortly before stepping inside the temporary morgue. “There is nothing they can do here. There is nothing for them to visually identify.”

Because of this, investigators will rely on science and sleuthing to name those who perished. McCarty said his subordinates, who include volunteers, have been divided into four teams.

One team will study personal effects, such as jewelry, eye glasses and clothing; a second team, from the FBI crime laboratory in Washington, will collect fingerprints. A third squad, of volunteer dentists, will check for cavities, bridges, false teeth and other identifying dental work; the fourth team, of professional pathologists, will look for signs of past illness or trauma and will fix the precise cause of death.

McCarty said the thoroughness of the process is needed because “we just don’t have a lot of good material to work with.”

“It is a difficult process,” added O. Joseph Faires of the FBI fingerprint team. “I know that creates a lot of anxiety on the part of the families, but this is one process you don’t want to rush.”

At the crash site, 13 investigators from the NTSB and several more from Galaxy, Lockheed-California Co. and Allison Gas Turbine were carefully sifting through the plane’s remains, noting the location and condition of each piece with the intent of reconstructing how the accident occurred.

Lockheed-California, a division of Lockheed Corp., made the airplane, an Electra 188, in 1960, and Allison, a division of General Motors Corp., manufactured the engines.

The on-scene investigators are focusing on six areas, NTSB spokeswoman Rachel Halterman said. They are the structure of the plane, the engines and propellers, performance by the aircraft crew and tower personnel, airline operations and procedures, survival factors and miscellaneous aircraft systems, such as hydraulics.

A final report from the NTSB declaring the probable cause of the crash, or concluding that no cause could be pinpointed, probably will not be published for at least six months, she said, to give analysts time to study the evidence now being gathered.

The FAA’s records center in Oklahoma City reported five entries over the last five years on the log of the aircraft in the accident. These included reports on small cracks in the wings found during maintenance inspections, gear box, oil cooler and brake problems.

FAA spokeswomen Bobbie Mardis said five service difficulty reports on the same plane in five years is not considered excessive.

FAA officials in Washington said that when Transportation Secretary Elizabeth H. Dole ordered a “white-gloves” inspection at all airlines last spring, Galaxy “came through without any problems.” FAA spokesman Fred Farrar said Galaxy showed up as “a very clean airline” with no bad marks on maintenance or operating procedures.

Meanwhile, a Minneapolis attorney who is related to a couple believed to have died in the crash, filed a wrongful death suit Tuesday in Hennepin County District Court seeking damages “in excess of $50,000" in the presumed deaths of Richard and Margaret Jaspersen of Edina.

Named as defendants are Galaxy Corp., Lockheed Aircraft, Caesar’s Palace, Hy Thayer and the unknown company that maintained the Electra plane. Thayer organized the gambling junket to Caesar’s Tahoe.

“If I could bring a lawsuit that could bring these people back, believe me that would be the course I’d take,” attorney Gary Stoneking of the Minneapolis law firm of Hvass, Weisman and King said. “Unfortunately, that isn’t one of our options.”

Stoneking, whose wife was the Jaspersens’ niece, said the family had received confirmation that the couple boarded the fatal flight.

Also contributing to this story was Times staff writer Robert L. Jackson in Washington.