Engine Failed Before Crash in N. Carolina, NTSB Says : Aviation: ‘Black box’ records cockpit discussion of flameout and picks up a warning tone. Five survivors of 20 aboard remain hospitalized.


An American Eagle commuter plane apparently suffered an engine failure seconds before it plunged into a wooded area, killing 15 of the 20 on board, the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday night.

Board Chairman Jim Hall said the “black box” voice recorder recovered from the wreckage of Flight 3379 showed that as the British-built Jetstream Super 31 descended to land at Raleigh-Durham International Airport Tuesday evening, the pilots talked about trouble with one of the two turboprop engines.

“There is a discussion about an engine flameout,” Hall told a packed news conference at a Morrisville hotel. “There is a discussion about flying a missed approach. There is a discussion about which engine is not operating properly.”


Moments later, he said, the recording device, which picks up all the sounds in the cockpit, recorded a warning tone from one of the plane’s alarm systems.

Hall did not say which alarm had sounded, but aviation sources said it may have been one that goes off as a plane begins to stall, losing the rapid flow of air over the wings that is necessary to maintain lift.

One of the five passengers who survived the crash told the NTSB that “without warning, the bottom dropped out,” Hall said.

Hall said the passenger, an experienced flier who was seated in the back of the plane, reported that the aircraft dropped, regained altitude briefly, then lunged toward the ground.

“He believed the plane was going to crash, and it did,” Hall said.

The NTSB chairman said that after the impact, the survivor, who was not identified, freed himself and crawled out of the wreckage, quickly distancing himself from the front of the plane, which was on fire. “He realized he was covered with fuel,” Hall said.

Exactly what happened after the engine failed is not yet clear, but Rick Bergholz, an experienced airline pilot, said some inferences can be drawn from the information.


The plane was making its descent, which means that the throttles were probably pulled fairly far back, permitting the aircraft to lose altitude, Bergholz said.

He said it probably was not until the pilot tried to add a little power to stabilize the plane that he realized one of the engines had flamed out.

An NTSB official, noting that a turboprop is essentially a jet engine, or “flame,” attached to a turbine that spins a propeller, described a flameout as simply “when the flame goes out.”

Kerosene-soaked wreckage indicates that the engine didn’t run out of fuel, but what caused the flameout has yet to be determined, the NTSB said.

While investigators declined to speculate on which engine failed, information recovered from the plane’s other “black box”--the flight data recorder--shows a turn to the left that suggests it was the left engine that flamed out.

Bergholz said the pilots’ remarks about a missed approach suggest that they may have been trying to abort the landing and go around for a second try. “In a situation like that, a guy’s got to make a lot of decisions in a big hurry,” Bergholz said. “The plane may have stalled as he tried to save it.”


Other flight data show that the plane had slowed to an airspeed of just 117 miles per hour before it crashed.

“That’s probably about the stall speed of that plane,” Bergholz said.

Hall noted that--in theory, at least--the pilots should have been able to fly and land with one engine out. It is not yet known whether pilot Michael P. Hillis, 29, of Raleigh or co-pilot Matthew I. Sailor, 25, of Miami was at the controls.

The plane was approaching Raleigh-Durham Airport in a steady drizzle after a short flight from Greensboro when it disappeared from air traffic controllers’ radar screens. It slashed through a stand of trees about four miles southwest of the airport and slammed belly-down into the ground. The impact broke the plane into three major pieces, scattering smaller fragments across the forest floor. A fire broke out in the cockpit.

Thirteen people, including the pilot and co-pilot, died in the wreckage. Two others died after being taken to a hospital.

NTSB investigators and local rescue personnel removed the remains of those who died in the wreckage and took them to a nearby morgue on Wednesday.

The five survivors remained hospitalized Wednesday, their conditions ranging from good to critical.


Ronald Lewis, 35, of Crystal Lake, Ill., was in critical but stable condition with broken bones and internal injuries.

“This is our little miracle,” his wife, Diane, said at a news conference. “I have a husband for Christmas. I have a father who’s going to be there for my kids.” She said they have four children, ranging in age from less than a year to 8.

Two of the other survivors were identified as Don Merkel, 60, of Windsor, Ill., and John Ciulla, 31, of Mannerville, N.Y. Both suffered broken bones and other injuries. The other two survivors were not identified.

The NTSB said it probably will be months before the cause of the crash is determined officially. Both crewmen were experienced. Hillis had 457 hours of experience flying in that model Jetstream, and Sailor had 677 hours. Each had more than 3,450 hours of total flying time. An NTSB spokesman said 600 or more hours of career flying time is considered significant.

Tuesday’s accident was the second crash of an American Eagle commuter plane is less than two months.

On Oct. 31, an American Eagle ATR 72 turboprop plunged nose-first into a field near Roselawn, Ind., killing all 68 aboard.


The Jetstream Super 31 is the smallest plane in the American Eagle fleet. Forty-seven feet in length and weighing about 9,000 pounds, it can carry 18 or 19 passengers, depending on the seat configuration.

At a news conference here Wednesday afternoon, Marty Heires, a spokesman for American Eagle, stressed the plane’s good safety record and said that it should not be confused with an earlier model--the Jetstream 31--that was involved in several accidents.

Heires said that all the defects in the Jetstream 31 were corrected in the newer, more powerful Jetstream Super 31.

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