Flight control panels used to lift off may have been locked in place on the Gulfstream jet carrying sports-franchise mogul Lewis Katz when it raced off a runway and crashed May 31, according to investigators.
The controls, known as elevators, were in position to hold the plane’s nose down and prevent it from flying, according to the aircraft data recorder, the National Transportation Safety Board said today in an update posted on its website. Katz and six others died as the plane crashed and caught fire.
Pilots are supposed to ensure that all flight control systems are functioning before each flight. A review of the plane’s recorder “did not reveal any movement consistent with a flight control check,” the NTSB said. The elevators are locked in the down position while a plane is parked.
The NTSB update contains evidence that is at times contradictory. The plane is equipped with a safety device that prevents pilots from adding power if the flight controls are locked and there’s no explanation for why it may not have worked. The twin-engine General Dynamics Corp. Gulfstream IV never left the ground even though it reached a speed of 190 miles (306 kilometers) an hour, the NTSB had said June 3.
One of the pilots made the routine call to lift the plane’s nose and climb, Luke Schiada, the NTSB’s chief investigator on the accident, said at a briefing.
As they were accelerating, the pilots made “comments concerning aircraft control,” Schiada said. The comments were captured on the plane’s cockpit recorder.
At that speed, the plane should have been capable of flying if its flight controls were functioning, John Cox, chief executive officer of industry consultant Safety Operating Systems, said in an interview.
Evidence at the scene and from the plane’s two crash-proof recorders indicated the pilots tried to stop. There were skid marks on the runway and one of the recorders showed the thrust reversers, which use engine power to slow down, were also activated, according to the update.
The business jet was being flown by Captain James McDowell, 51, of Georgetown, Delaware, and co-pilot Michael De Vries, 45, of Marlton, New Jersey, according to the Middlesex District Attorney’s office. Both pilots had more than 10,000 hours of flight experience, according to the NTSB.
Investigators will need to sift through evidence that is inconsistent before determining what triggered the accident, according to today’s update.
The Gulfstream’s gust-lock system holds the elevators and other control surfaces on the wing and tail in place on the ground to prevent damage from wind.
If locked, a mechanical system connected to the engines is supposed to prevent engine power beyond a “minimal amount,” according to the NTSB. There was no explanation for why the pilots could have reached such high speeds if the controls were frozen.
As the plane taxied out to the runway and accelerated for takeoff, the elevators remained in position to hold the nose down. That is how they’re locked on the ground, according to the NTSB.
The switch that locks the flight controls was found in the off position in the cockpit after the accident, according to the NTSB. The elevators weren’t physically locked down by the latch used to hold them in place, at least as they were found in the wreckage, the NTSB said.
There was no evidence of an engine failure or other issue during the takeoff attempt, investigators said.
Steve Cass, a spokesman for Gulfstream, declined to comment and said all communication on the investigation is being handled by the NTSB.
Katz had flown to Bedford to attend an event at the Concord, Massachusetts, home of Richard Goodwin and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Katz, a lawyer and businessman who through the years owned the New Jersey Nets basketball team, New Jersey Devils hockey team and ran a billboard company and parking-lot operator, won control of the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper and its sister publication at a court-ordered auction four days before the crash. He was 72.
The other passengers were Susan Asbell, 67, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Marcella Dalsey, 59, of Williamstown, New Jersey, and Anne Leeds of Longport, New Jersey. A flight attendant, Teresa Ann Benhoff, 48, of Easton, Maryland, was also aboard, according to the district attorney’s office.