The Galaxy Airlines Lockheed Electra-188 that crashed and killed 68 people was leaking fluid from a smoking engine on its left wing the day before the accident, a federal investigator said here Wednesday night.
Two pilots saw the leaking fluid on Sunday, and one of them, an Eastern Airlines pilot, warned the Galaxy pilot of the leak, Jim Burnett, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said.
According to Burnett, the pilot thanked the Eastern pilot, who replied, "At least this way, you'll be ready."
Burnett also reported that George Lamson Jr., one of three survivors of the Galaxy crash, said that he saw something dripping from the left wing when he boarded the plane early Monday on its charter flight to Minnesota.
The plane shuddered and crashed moments after takeoff and just seconds after the pilot told airport controllers in a shaking voice, "We've got to get back on the ground," according to a control tower recording.
Flight 203, a chartered "gamblers' special," skidded through a recreational vehicle dealership 2 1/2 miles from the runway and onto a highway, setting off a series of fiery explosions.
Three people survived the crash, the nation's worst air disaster since July, 1982, but two were in critical condition.
At a briefing Wednesday night, Burnett said Federal Aviation Administration recordings revealed that the Eastern pilot told the Galaxy pilot in Las Vegas on Sunday that the No. 1 engine on the left side was smoking a lot and losing some kind of liquid.
The Galaxy pilot thanked him and said, "We just shifted up too high."
The Eastern pilot then replied, "At least this way you'll be ready," according to Burnett.
Another man who holds a commercial pilot's license and was on the Galaxy plane on a Super Bowl junket from South Lake Tahoe to Oakland on Sunday also saw leakage from under the left wing, Burnett said.
"He saw the Electra land. It made a right turn. During that right turn, he saw, he said, fluid spill from under the left wing," Burnett reported. "He estimated the amount to be 10 gallons and said it was a constant spray and left a wet arc on the runway."
Meanwhile, a coroner's team armed with dental charts and fingerprint records set to work identifying bodies removed from the wreckage.
The toll from the crash was officially raised to 68 from 67 after officials discovered that two bags containing the remains of victims had been given the same number when they were removed from the wreckage, Coroner Vern McCarty said.
He said the total of 68 victims and three survivors agreed with the final manifest of 71 people submitted by the Minneapolis FBI office. The plane was returning to Minneapolis with passengers who had been on a gamblers' junket.
The National Transportation Safety Board was moving parts of the wreck to a hangar at Reno Cannon International Airport for examination, Burnett said earlier Wednesday.
The control tower tapes released Tuesday by the FAA revealed that the pilot was concerned about vibrations in the Lockheed Electra-188 and that he requested emergency vehicles for his landing.
"Galaxy 203 would like to make a left downwind. We've got to get back on the ground," the pilot radioed at 1:03 a.m.
Joe Beaudoin of the FAA said "left downwind" meant that the pilot wanted to bank left so that he could circle the airport and land.
The pilot repeated, "We'd like to make a left downwind (unintelligible) vibration in the aircraft."
"Do you need the equipment?" the tower asked.
"That's affirmative," the pilot replied, his voice quavering.
Instead of a left turn, the craft plummeted to the right and crashed.
"Something did not permit him to make the left downwind when he wanted to," Burnett said.
Burnett said he did not know if the pilot's voice quavered from fear or because of the vibration in the plane.
He discounted speculation that a propeller had disintegrated before the crash but did not rule out a problem with a propeller as possibly contributing to the accident.
Burnett said the propellers were required to be changed every 42 months and the expiration date on one of the plane's props came up last October.
Galaxy received a two-week extension for the swap, then put on another propeller. He said the old propeller was put back under another two-week extension that would have expired at midnight Tuesday.
Burnett added that the extensions were proper under the rules, but the board would "have to see whether it is a good policy."