Investigators looking at whether fuel was a factor in plane crash

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - Investigators on Monday were looking into whether fuel problems caused both engines to fail aboard a charter plane that crashed, killing all 19 people aboard. But the probe was hampered because the cockpit voice recorder was not working at the time.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigators searched for clues in the wreckage after Sunday's crash of the Executive Airlines twin-engine turboprop, which was carrying 17 passengers home from a gambling trip to Atlantic City, N.J.

The two pilots, who also were killed, had reported to air traffic controllers that they lost both engines as they made their second approach to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton airport in the rain.

Aviation analysts said dual-engine failures are rare and can indicate a problem with the fuel supply.

NTSB member George Black said investigators were ''looking at fuel and fuel systems,'' including whether the fuel was contaminated.

However, Black said later that no evidence of contamination was found in a preliminary test of the fuel from a truck in Farmingdale, N.Y., that had refueled the plane. The tests were continuing and would include a ground sample from the crash site.

Investigators did not rule out that the plane could have been low on fuel.

Black also said the voice recorder had an improper power supply and did not record any sounds in the cockpit. Plus, the plane did not have the other type of ''black box'' recorder, the one that takes down flight data such as speed and altitude, because it was not required for the model of airplane, a Jetstream 31.

''This seriously hampers the investigation,'' Black said. ''This is somewhat disappointing, and we're going to do the best we can without it.''

He said investigators will rely on the wreckage, witnesses, radar data and conversations between the pilots and air traffic controllers.

The plane left Farmingdale on Sunday morning, picked up the passengers about 10:30 a.m. in Atlantic City and then headed to Wilkes-Barre for the one-hour, 150-mile flight.

Peter Hartt, spokesman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the Atlantic City Airport, said the aircraft received no fuel or repairs there. The director of the airport in Farmingdale, Hugh Jones, referred all questions about the plane to the NTSB.

John Nance, an aviation analyst in Tacoma, Wash., said one failed engine is a ''very rare event.''

''To have two fail simultaneously is simply beyond the realm of probability,'' he said. ''What will cause two engines to stop running simultaneously is an interruption in the fuel supply. It could be some sort of catastrophic problem with the pumping system or the plumbing of the fuel system.''

Michael Peragine, chief executive of the Farmingdale-based Executive Airlines, said the company had never had problems with the 12-year-old plane. He said the pilot had 8,500 hours of flight time, ''a relatively high amount of time,'' and the co-pilot was about to be upgraded to captain.

''These were two expert pilots and the machine was maintained to the highest standards,'' Peragine said. ''You just don't have a clue as to what could have possibly happened.''

The plane went down about nine miles from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton airport at 11:48 a.m. Sunday. Black said the plane might have missed its first approach because of bad weather. It was raining, and visibility was poor.

As investigators looked for clues, nearby communities mourned the victims, who had gone to Atlantic City on Saturday afternoon on the flight chartered by Caesars Atlantic City Hotel Casino.

Debra Maleski lost her mother, Nancy Maleski, 66, of Moosic, and sister Elaine Pilosi, 46. She said the casino chartered the flight every other weekend from Wilkes-Barre.

''They just went for an evening of fun and excitement. They played the slots,'' Maleski said. ''They didn't like to fly, either one of them.''

Residents in the small communities near Wilkes-Barre waited for the coroner to post the list of victims.

''If you don't know somebody, you know someone who knows them,'' said Jerry Mancinelli of Dallas, Pa. ''Everybody in the valley is going to be touched.''


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