Gulfstream Managers Blamed for Fatal Crash on Test Flight

Gulfstream Push to Speed Tests Helped Cause Crash, NTSB Says
An artist's rendering of a General Dynamics Corp. Gulfstream G650. Source: Business Wire via Bloomberg

Pressure to speed flight tests of a new model of General Dynamics Corp.’s Gulfstream business jet so it could win U.S. certification for sale was blamed by a U.S. safety agency for a crash that killed four employees.

The National Transportation Safety Board yesterday ruled that Gulfstream management was responsible for the accident that sent a G650, which costs $65 million and has the longest range of any private aircraft, sliding off a Roswell, New Mexico, runway in flames on April 2, 2011.

“Two prior close calls should have prompted a yellow flag, but instead of slowing down to analyze what had happened, the program continued full speed ahead,” Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the accident-investigation agency, said at a hearing in Washington. “This crash was as much an absence of leadership as it was of lift.”

The twin-engine aircraft was approved last month by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration after changes were made to ensure safety, the agency said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. Gulfstream has 200 orders for the plane, which it calls the “flagship” of its fleet, and said it expects to begin deliveries before the end of the year.

Gulfstream, based in Savannah, Georgia, has taken several steps to prevent lapses in the future, including beefing up its safety review board that oversees flight tests, according to the NTSB.

Obstruction Accusations

Hersman earlier this year accused Gulfstream of “obstruction” during the board’s investigation.

The company failed to quarantine accident data, lost evidence including a computer hard drive and withheld results of an internal safety audit, according to an April 4 letter from Hersman to Gulfstream President Larry Flynn.

Any failings by Gulfstream employees were inadvertent, according to a March 30 letter Flynn wrote to Hersman. He said the FBI was notified about the missing hard drive as soon as it was discovered and the employee who threw it away was fired.

“We appreciate the NTSB’s commitment to thoroughly examining this accident and determining the cause,” Flynn said yesterday after the safety board’s meeting.

He declined to comment further, referring to a company submission during the investigation in which it said the accident could have been avoided if issues revealed during tests had been corrected.

Privileged Passengers

The G650 can fly as far as 8,056 miles (12,962 kilometers) with eight passengers, the company’s website says.

The aircraft was designed to take advantage of the growing market for private planes that can whisk business people and the wealthy non-stop between cities in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Robert Breiling, a safety consultant for the business-aircraft industry, said in an interview.

The G650 is only slightly cheaper than Boeing Co.’s BBJ, a version of the 737 designed as a private jet, Breiling said.

The crash occurred during tests simulating an engine failure. The jet lost lift moments after liftoff and the right wing dipped.

“Whoa,” both pilots said, according to an NTSB transcription of a sound recorder in the cockpit.

The wing hit the ground and the jet caught fire. “Ah sorry guys,” one of the pilots said in the last words recorded.

Inadequate Warning

Gulfstream’s pilots had twice experienced a similar loss of lift during flight tests, investigators found. The firm didn’t recognize the severity of those incidents -- known as aerodynamic stalls -- and didn’t bring them up in safety discussions, according to NTSB records.

Shortly before the accident, engineers had altered the jet’s stall-warning device so the pilots got no alert that they were in danger until it was too late, according to NTSB documents.

A safety manual for flight tests, developed during production of previous Gulfstream models, was not followed, the board found.

The NTSB also recommended that the FAA and aircraft manufacturers consider the Gulfstream accident’s findings during future flight tests of new aircraft.

The safety board, which has no regulatory power, suggested that Gulfstream conduct independent audits during future flight-test programs.

Hersman said Gulfstream made changes to improve safety after the accident and, as a result, the safety board didn’t make additional recommendations.

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