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Pilots pondered weight of doomed plane

From Patty Davis
CNN

The twin-engine plane clipped a hangar before crashing and killing 21 people.
The twin-engine plane clipped a hangar before crashing and killing 21 people.

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The cockpit voice recording from the crash of Air Midwest Flight 5481 in North Carolina reveals that the crew discussed the plane's weight before taking off. CNN's Patty Davis reports (May 21)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The cockpit voice recording from the crash of Air Midwest Flight 5481 in Charlotte, North Carolina, reveals that the crew discussed the plane's weight before taking off.

All 19 passengers and two crew members were killed just 37 seconds after takeoff from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport January 8.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which Tuesday began the first of two planned days of public hearings, believes the aircraft was within 100 pounds of its 17,000 pound maximum weight.

The weather was clear at the time of the crash, and the NTSB is trying to determine if cables controlling the up and down motion of the plane contributed to the fatal accident or if weight and balance on the aircraft played a role.

The hearing is a fact-finding exercise, and the NTSB said it does not expect to rule on the cause of the crash before the end of the year.

Information released at the hearing from the flight data recorder revealed a conversation between the pilots of the twin-engine, turboprop Beech 1900D in which they calculated weight and tried to determine where to place baggage.

A ramp worker asks, "How many we gotta take off?"

Capt. Katie Leslie responds: "We're figuring it out. We don't think we have to take anything off."

The plane's first officer said: "He's probably lookin' at our... tail. Like 'bout ready to hit the ground right now, with all the bags back there," after which laughter is heard.

'We have an emergency'

As the plane took off, it climbed much more steeply than normal and the crew was unable to level it off. The plane banked and crashed, clipping a maintenance hangar on the way down and erupting in a ball of fire. Investigators told CNN the plane virtually disintegrated.

The recording shows moments of growing panic as the pilots struggle to control the plane.

As the plane takes off, Leslie says in a loud voice: "Push the nose down ... Oh, my God." She then radioed in: "We have an emergency for Air Midwest 5481."

The cockpit voice recorder captured the voice of a young child yelling, "Daddy!"

Then the captain again: "Pull the power back." Seconds later, "Oh my God, ah!"

The co-pilot: "Uh, uh, God, ah. (expletive.)"

The recording ends two seconds later.

Federal crash investigators are looking into maintenance done on the plane's elevators two days before the crash. The elevators control the airplane's pitch, or up-and-down movement. The NTSB said in January that the tension in the "up" and "down" elevator cables was off by nearly 2 inches.

Safety experts said the problem with the elevators -- along with the fact that the pitch was down when it should have been in a neutral position -- would have made the aircraft difficult, if not impossible, to control, particularly if weight shifted in the cargo hold.

Investigators will hear this week from officials with Air Midwest, the Federal Aviation Administration and executives at Raytheon, which built the plane and did its maintenance.


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