Commuter Plane Crashes Near Detroit, Killing 29

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A twin-engine commuter plane hurtled out of the sky in a snowstorm Thursday about 20 miles southwest of here and crashed into a cornfield, erupting into a fireball and killing all 29 people aboard.

The turboprop Embraer 120, operated by Comair and flying from Cincinnati as the Delta Connection, was on approach for a landing at the Detroit Metro Airport at 3:56 p.m. EST when a witness said it listed to the right and nose-dived into the ground.

The impact was so severe that it left a small, black crater in the snow-white cornfield in rural Ida, Mich. The plane burst into flames and broke apart, scattering shards of metal and other debris for hundreds of yards.

"I seen it hit the ground," said Shaun Gilb, who was playing with his dog in his backyard before the crash. "A mushroom cloud came up about 200 feet, and it was followed by a big ball of fire."

Tom Marino, who lives half a mile from the crash, said the plane sounded loud as it passed overhead. "Then there was a real loud boom," he said, "and a big vibration that shook the ground."

Those arriving at the scene within minutes said the plane had disintegrated and the fire was so intense that there was no possibility of survivors. Local hospitals were taken off the alert for crash victims.

As darkness fell, rescue workers with flashlights began recovering and identifying bodies. The somber job was made more difficult by driving snow and subfreezing temperatures.

Comair, a regional carrier in the Midwest and Florida, said the plane was Flight 3272. The airline identified 20 of the 29 victims, including Capt. Dann Carlsen, First Officer Kenneth Reece and Flight Attendant Darinda Ogden.

It planned to name the remaining nine today. None of the identified victims was from California. Friends and relatives were told of the tragedy by Comair personnel in Detroit and were provided with grief counseling.

The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched an 11-member team of investigators from Washington. They arrived late Thursday night and were expected to begin a probe of the crash's cause today.

The first task would be recovery of the aircraft's black boxes. The flight data recorder can provide vital information on the plane's controls, altitude and flight path, while the cockpit voice recorder can provide key communications and other data.

In a preliminary statement, the Federal Aviation Administration said that the plane had routine contact with air traffic controllers in Detroit, who were unaware of trouble until the craft disappeared from their radar screens.

"The pilot did not alert air traffic controllers of any unusual circumstances," said Dan Zachert, an FAA spokesman in Chicago.

Once the black boxes are found, the investigators will look into a variety of other factors that could be linked to the crash. They include the plane's maintenance records, structural integrity, human error and weather.

At a news conference in Cincinnati, where the airline is based, Charles Curran, Comair senior vice president, said the aircraft had its last major maintenance check on Nov. 20. He said inspectors found no irregularities.

Since then, Curran said, "all maintenance has been performed."

Previous flight crews had reported no problems, Curran said. Moreover, he said, the ill-fated crew had taken the plane on a round trip between Cincinnati and Detroit earlier in the day and reported no problems.

The investigators also will talk to eyewitnesses.

One witness, Bob Connor, said he looked up when he heard the low-flying plane. "It was rolling, clockwise," he said, "and then when it was just 200 feet in the air, it nose-dived straight down."

Because the crash occurred in bad weather, investigators will look closely at meteorological factors. At the time of the crash, the FAA said, visibility was about 1.5 miles and winds were light. But up to six inches of snow fell Thursday, along with freezing rain. Winds blew at 30 mph.

Comair, the nation's second-largest regional airline, provides connector flights for Delta Air Lines. Delta owns about 20% of Comair. This was the second fatal crash in Comair's 20-year history.

In the first, a twin-engine Piper Navajo crashed at an airport in Kentucky in 1979 after an engine failed on takeoff. Eight people were killed.

The Embraer 120 involved in Thursday's crash was acquired new from its Brazilian manufacturer four years ago, Comair officials said. The aircraft is popular among commuter airlines. There are about 300 flying, most in the United States. The aircraft can carry 30 passengers.

This was the fourth fatal crash of an Embraer 120 in the past five years.

One killed former Sen. John Tower of Texas on April 5, 1991, in Brunswick, Ga. Others among the 23 people who died in that Atlantic Southeast Airlines crash were Tower's daughter, Marion, and astronaut Manley Lanier "Sonny" Carter Jr.

Investigators discovered a malfunction in the propeller pitch control and a worn part in a propeller control system on the left engine. Propellers either refused to change pitch or did so independently. The FAA ordered commuter airlines to inspect planes with similar propellers.

Another crash of an Embraer 120 five months later, this time on a Continental Express flight, killed all 14 people aboard.

That plane fell into a cornfield about 75 miles southwest of Houston in clear and calm weather. The aircraft had begun its descent to Houston Intercontinental Airport when it disappeared from radar screens. The pilot had been in regular contact with air traffic controllers but did not report any difficulties.

Investigators blamed missing screws in the horizontal stabilizer bar on the tail of the plane.

The third previous Embraer 120 crash with fatalities happened in west Georgia, about 40 miles from Atlanta, on Aug. 21, 1995. Ten people died after the Atlantic Southeast Airlanes plane fell into a hayfield after taking off from Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport.

The pilot reported engine problems and survivors said they could see the left engine begin to come apart. One said he watched as a metal band holding the propeller flew off and metal peeled away from the engine.

Four feet of propeller blade snapped off, investigators said, and the engine cowling began to disintegrate. Fuel sprayed out.

The plane broke apart and burned on impact.

Investigators blamed a crack in the propeller. The FAA ordered immediate inspections of 13,000 propeller blades on 1,500 aircraft. Three hundred seventy propellers were replaced.

Nineteen were on Embraer 120s.

Times staff writer Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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