Investigators zeroed in on the shattered tail section of an Aeromexico DC-9 jetliner and the twisted wreckage of a Piper Cherokee Archer II on Wednesday as they struggled to determine the cause of their disastrous, in-flight collision last Sunday, a mile above Cerritos.
“The focus is on these pieces,” said structural engineer John White, who heads the National Transportation Safety Board’s wreckage inspection effort, “because this is where we have evidence that two airplanes came in contact.
“We have had eyewitness accounts that the small aircraft hit forward of the tail section, but at this point we haven’t found any evidence of that.”
The tail section of the airliner and the remains of the light airplane lay side by side Wednesday in a vacant lot beside a McDonnell-Douglas hangar on the west side of Long Beach Municipal Airport.
White said the light plane was recovered almost intact--except for the top of the cabin, which was sheared off by the force of its impact with the jetliner--at the crash site, but experts had to reassemble the aft portion of the DC-9 from larger bits and pieces found at the crash site.
From these remnants, he said, experts may be able to determine the exact angle at which they collided a few minutes before noon Sunday, dooming 67 passengers and crew in the two airplanes and at least three others on the ground.
White, who also served on a NASA investigative team which reconstructed parts of the space shuttle Challenger, said he also hopes that examination of the wreckage may yield evidence to determine the exact speed of both aircraft, and the direction in which they were flying.
He said the physical inspection of the wreckage should be completed by today, and he will return to Washington D.C. to analyze the findings and recreate the collision using models and correlating impact information with other sources, such as radar data, to determine what caused the collision.
“Then--and only then--will we have a better idea of what really happened,” White said.
The NTSB official said his team is looking for anything--dents, scratches, gouge marks or even paint chips--to determine the impact point.
White displayed a piece of the jetliner’s vertical stablizer, which bore rubber skidmarks caused, he said, by the nose wheel of the smaller airplane. He said that much of the forward portion of the jet “disintegrated” on impact, which made recovery of those parts “nearly impossible.”
The left wing of the Cherokee--though mostly intact--was visibly crushed.
Authorities have said they believe the smaller airplane struck the jetliner near its tail. And White said “several chunks” of the Cherokee plane were imbedded in the left side of the jetliner’s stablizer--a long, flat and slightly curved airfoil, positioned at the top of the tail section, that determiness the pitch of the aircraft--nose up or nose down--while in flight.
Following the mid-air collision, emergency crews found the stablizer of the DC-9 several blocks from the point where the jet crashed to earth. White said the stablizer is believed to have broken free at the time of the collision.
“Everything we have found,” he said, “is consistent with a mid-air collision.”
Meanwhile, San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli said he is ready to file the first personal injury suits in the case.
“We have four of them (suits) and we’ll probably have a lot more,” Belli said. “We’re suing Aeromexico, the people on the small plane, the United States, the state (of California), the owners of the plane or planes involved and various individuals.”
Belli said the suits would be filed Friday in U.S. District Court at Los Angeles.
Federal court suits do not specify monetary damages, but Belli said he expects the amounts to be “substantial.” He said the federal government will be named as one defendant in the actions because of the role that air controllers may have played in the tragedy.
Dr. John Lauber, who is in charge of the NTSB’s investigation of the disaster, said the air controller who was assigned to the doomed Aeromexico flight was questioned Wednesday and will be questioned again “in depth” at a later time.
Lauber said his investigators hope, among other things, to establish whether or not the Piper Cherokee appeared on the controller’s radar screen. He said it now appears that the little airplane had violated air space restricted to commercial aircraft equipped with more sophisticated gear.
“The PA-28 (Cherokee) was not operating with clearance,” Lauber said. “It was not operating within regulations.”
Investigators now say they have tracked the Cherokee, carrying pilot William Kramer, 53, his wife and a 26-year-old daughter, from the point of the collision back to the point where it entered the restricted airspace.
Lauber said the Cherokee entered the restricted area about two minutes before the crash, and if the pilot had seen the jetliner, “two minutes would have been plenty of time” to avoid a collision.
Investigators said they have established the fact that the Cherokee had its strobe lights and landing lights on--a common practice of small planes to increase their visibility to other aircraft in busy areas.
Lauber said the investigators also intend to interview the pilot of another airplane that “popped up” on the screen just before the crash. Officials also will ask the air controller whether he was “distracted” by the necessity of issuing instructions to that airplane. The name of the pilot was not released.
Photographs taken by individuals on the ground as the jetliner fell will also be analyzed, he said.
In Washington, NTSB investigators said they are not sure how much information they can get from the DC-9’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, both of which were severely damaged by impact and fire.
Investigators said they are especially anxious to know if cockpit conversation indicates whether the DC-9 crew was aware that the Cherokee was in the area.
And the flight data recorder could indicate whether the jetliner’s pilot had time to begin a maneuver to avoid the plane.
William Kramer, pilot of the smaller airplane, was remembered Wednesday by an official at the Torrance-based metals company where he worked as “a quiet and serious executive.”
Charles E. Emery, a senior official with International Light Metals, said Kramer was hired by the firm as director of technology last October after a nationwide search. He said Kramer was charged with overseeing quality control at the plant, which manufactures metal parts, such as window frames and axles, for major aircraft builders.
Since moving south last fall from Spokane, Wash., Emery said, Kramer had “flown frequently” over the Los Angeles Basin.
“To the best of my knowledge,” he said, "(Kramer) was very familiar with the area and the airspace.”
Emery is also a light plane pilot, but said he had never flown with Kramer.
Referring to reports that Kramer had suffered a heart attack only minutes before the mid-air collision, Emery said that Kramer had shown no signs in recent weeks of any illness or physical difficulties.
When hired last fall, he said, Kramer was given a routine new employee physical and was found to be “fit and in good health.”