Aspen investigation suggests crew error

February 24, 1991|By Doug Birch

Evidence uncovered by federal safety investigators suggests that a series of misjudgments by the crew preceded the Feb. 13 crash of a Lear jet in Aspen, Colo., that killed Baltimore businessman Harold N. Goldsmith, some experienced pilots said Friday.

"It's hard to second-guess in something like this, but it sounds like he [the pilot] got it too low, too slow and tried to fly the plane the way you can't," said Robert Cadwalader, a veteran corporate jet pilot from the Baltimore area.

An ongoing National Transportation Safety Board investigation has not found any mechanical problems with the aircraft, said Arnold W. Scott, an NTSB investigator based in Denver. He said he is not permitted to discuss possible causes of the crash.

But the Baltimore pilots said other evidence gathered by the agency suggests the crew lost control of the jet as it turned to land at a runway at Aspen, ringed on three sides by steep Rocky Mountain slopes.

All three people aboard the charter jet taxi were killed in the crash and explosion that followed. Mr. Goldsmith, 48, a co-founder of a retail clothing chain and a head of Eastern Savings Bank, was the sole passenger, returning to his Colorado home from a business trip to Las Vegas.

Mr. Cadwalader and another pilot also questioned whether,considering the bad weather, the crew should have attempted to land at the fashionable ski resort.

A federal safety investigator said yesterday that three minutes after the crash the weather above the airport was overcast, with a ceiling of only 1,000 feet.

A Baltimore County pilot, who asked not to be identified, pointed out that federal rules instruct pilots not to land at Aspen using instruments when the ceiling is less than 3,100 feet above the runway.

Joseph Saladino, the Aspen tower manager, said it was up to the pilot to pull up if he found the ceiling was lower than the 3,100-foot minimum. "We can only advise him of weather conditions," he said.

"There's a lesser margin for error at the airport in Aspen than there is in most other airports in the world, especially in instrument conditions," said the Baltimore County pilot, who has flown corporate jets into the resort.

Mr. Scott said the plane's captain, Harold E. Ravnsborg of Aurora, Colo., was headed southeast over the airport when he spotted it. He banked sharply right, flew northwest parallel to the airport, then banked right trying to make a U-turn.

An air traffic controller at Aspen, Mr. Scott said, reported that the jet came in too low and banked too sharply, heading right of the center line of the runway.

Mr. Scott quoted the air controller as saying that, while still more than two miles away from the airport tower, the plane began "shuddering" and its nose pitched forward. A split-second later, at 5:41 p.m., the jet hit a stretch of flat ground and exploded.

Other witnesses said they saw the plane's wings "wig-wag," or tip back and forth, before it crashed.

Mr. Scott would not comment when asked if the pilot should have tried to land, given the weather conditions. "We're looking at the weather very closely," he said.

Two other pilots said they would not have tried to land under similar circumstances.

Mr. Cadwalader and another pilot said Mr. Scott's findings suggest the plane may have gone into a stall -- where it loses the aerodynamic lift that keeps it airborne -- when it slowed during its sharp turn toward the runway.

Reports that the plane's nose pitched forward, they said, suggest that the crew was trying to accelerate out of the stall. But they said the plane may have been too low to gain enough speed to recover.

While he was growing up, Mr. Goldsmith was part of a circle of friends that was the focus of director Barry Levinson's 1982 film, "Diner."

At the time of his death, his holdings were said to be worth $100 million.

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