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Cargo plane pilot makes distress call moments before crash

December 24, 1996

NARROWS, Va. (AP) _ The pilot of a doomed DC-8 cargo plane radioed a distress call before his aircraft plunged into a densely forested mountain, the lead investigator into the crash said Monday.

The plane was on a maintenance test flight Sunday evening from Greensboro, N.C., to Wilmington, Ohio, when it crashed and exploded in a remote forest near the West Virginia state line, killing all six people on board.

Twenty minutes into the flight, the plane fell into a steep dive, said Bob McIntosh of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The plane, which belonged to Airborne Express, had been cleared to fly at 13,000 to 15,000 feet when the pilot made the distress call.

``They were already in an emergency descent and they said they were passing 8,000 feet,″ McIntosh said.

The crash gouged a crater 5 feet deep and 30 feet across into the mountainside, 3,400 feet up. Its fireball blackened a wide area of brush and trees around the crater and scattered wreckage over two acres.

Investigators recovered the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder Monday and shipped them to Washington for analysis. McIntosh declined to speculate on the cause of the crash.

``We’ll start the dissection process as soon as we can this afternoon,″ he said.

McIntosh and other investigators began interviewing residents, some of whom have said they heard what sounded like an engine cutting off and on and then an explosion.

``There was a big orange fireball that lasted 10 to 15 seconds,″ said Stan Akers, who lives nearby and was one of the first to reach the crash site Sunday night. ``The mushroom cloud reminds you of the pictures of Hiroshima.″

Search-and-rescue teams recovered the bodies of the three crew members and three mechanics, said Steve Davis of the Giles County rescue squad.

The 29-year-old plane belonged to Airborne Express’ subsidiary ABX Air, which operates a hub and sorting operation in Wilmington. ABX had just bought the used plane, and the mechanics were on board to evaluate it during its test flight, said company spokeswoman Rita Carey.

Seattle-based Airborne Express ranks third nationally in overnight deliveries behind Federal Express and United Parcel Service.

Airborne Express identified five of the dead as its employees. They were Garth Avery, 48, of Dayton, Ohio; William Keith Leming, 37, of Lebanon, Ohio; Terry Waelti, 52, and Edward Bruce Goettsch, 48, both of Wilmington, Ohio; and Kenneth Athey, 39, of Winston-Salem, N.C.

The sixth victim was Brian Scully, 36, of Walkertown, N.C., who worked for Triad International Maintenance Corp. of Greensboro, N.C.

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