URGENT NTSB: Poor Judgment Probable Cause of Heinz Accident
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Poor judgment by pilots of both aircraft probably caused the midair crash that killed Sen. John Heinz and six others, the National Transportation Safety Board said today.
After a morning meeting, the board placed responsibility for the April 4 accident on both the operator of the airplane carrying Heinz and on the helicopter crew that had flown near the airplane in an attempt to help the airplane pilot determine if his landing gear was in place.
The board determined the helicopter crew failed to maintain a safe separation from the plane while inspecting the landing gear.
It also cited poor training of the plane pilot by Lycoming Air Services, the charter company that operated the plane.
Sun Co., owner of the helicopter involved in the crash, had blamed the accident on the airplane pilot. In its report to the NTSB, Sun Co. said a contributing cause of the accident was the inexperience of the flight crew on the chartered twin-engine Piper Aerostar, which was carrying Heinz.
″The cause of this accident was the failure of the pilot of the Aerostar to maintain his heading and not turn until he visually observed the helicopter go by on the right side and notify the tower and the helicopter that he was ready to receive instructions to return to the airport,″ the company report said.
″Further, the pilot of the Aerostar turned right instead of left as the tower instructed,″ said the report, which concluded the helicopter pilots were operating the craft safely.
The helicopter had volunteered to inspect the landing gear on the plane, which the airplane’s pilots suspected was not locked in place.
Gary T. Harris, attorney for Lycoming Air Services, had said the company disagreed with the findings of the Sun Co. report.
″Obviously we believe that’s incorrect,″ Harris said during a break in the NTSB meeting. ″We don’t believe that’s what happened.″
A report released by federal investigators earlier this year found that Trond M. Stegen, the captain of the plane carrying Heinz, had less than three hours of experience commanding the chartered aircraft. It also recorded the final movements of the aircraft and reviewed flight logs, equipment manuals and other information.
Heinz, four pilots and two schoolchildren were killed in the April 4 crash near Philadelphia when the Aerostar and helicopter collided, raining debris on a schoolyard.
Interviews with veteran pilots taken during the investigation indicated that once the landing gear is down on the Aerostar, it is locked in place. Their statements appeared to raise questions about whether the repeated checks on the Heinz plane landing gear were necessary. The gear had been checked by tower controllers and the helicopter pilots.
According to pilot log books, Stegen, a 29-year-old Norwegian national, had more than 2,600 hours of flight experience in single- and multiple-engine planes. But investigators found that he had 2.9 hours of experience as pilot- in-command of the Aerostar involved in the accident.
Other interviews taken during the investigation showed Stegen displayed a lack of knowledge about the plane’s equipment on his maiden flight earlier that month.