CB radio could have caused crash Safety board unable to find cause of plane fire that led to fatal '89 crash.

June 17, 1991|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Evening Sun Staff

The small cargo plane that crashed into a Ferndale home in 1989 contained an unauthorized citizens band radio that could have overloaded the electrical system, according to federal investigators. The pilot and a baby in the home were killed.

The National Transportation Safety Board could not determine if the radio actually caused the fire that erupted in the plane's cockpit shortly after it took off from Baltimore-Washington International Airport on July 19, 1989, said NTSB spokesman Alan Pollock.

The cockpit fire caused the twin-engine Beechcraft to plow into a house in Ferndale, killing pilot Benjamin Vitalini, 50, of Leroy, N.Y., and 6-month-old Paul A. Beam, who lived in the house. The infant's parents and four siblings escaped the crash, which turned their rancher to a smoldering pile of rubble.

"There was an extensive examination of the CB radio found in the wreckage, but we could not establish if it caused any electrical overloading within the cockpit area," NTSB investigator Alfred Dickinson said.

The fire and crash destroyed evidence that could have helped establish the radio's role and determine the fire's origin, he said.

The pilot did not have authorization for the CB radio, and the plane's owners reported that the radio was not installed in the aircraft before Vitalini's flight, Dickinson said.

An experienced pilot, Vitalini flew the cargo plane containing United Parcel Service packages for Centre Airlines in Reedsville, Pa.

"None of our aircraft have [CB radios] or need them," said Alan Bailey, maintenance director at Centre Airlines.

"This [CB] is something that the pilot apparently took out of his vehicle and apparently put in the plane," said J. Henry Garbrick, an owner and operations director of Centre Airlines.

Bailey said the radio could have caused a fire if improperly installed. "Anything put into the electrical system incorrectly will cause a problem. I personally looked at the records and didn't see anything wrong with the electrical system," he said. The plane was built in the 1950s.

The pilot failed to follow procedures governing radio installation, Dickinson said. A certified, trained person must install the radio and record it in the plane's maintenance log, he said.

In addition to the fire, the report concluded, smoke and fumes in the cockpit contributed to the crash by reducing the pilot's ability to see.

Soon after takeoff, Vitalini reported a fire under a side panel in the cockpit and prepared to circle and land. Witnesses reported seeing flames and smoke in the cockpit, the report said.

The plane began a gradual descent during a left turn, grazed a light pole in a shopping center and plunged into a house in the 200 block of Longwood Ave. shortly after 7 a.m.

Ralph and Janice Beam escaped from the house with four of their five young children. Their 6-month-old son, Paul, perished.

Janice Beam said yesterday that her husband is disappointed that the NTSB report failed to find a definitive cause of the crash. "I don't think it was the CB that caused it," she said. "But that will always be a question in people's minds."

The Beams rebuilt their home and moved back to Longwood Avenue in January, she said. The family has a new addition, Michael, who was born in November.

The NTSB report, which does not contain any safety recommendations, will be sent to the Federal Aviation Administration.

During the two-year investigation, the NTSB examined the plane's wreckage, the airline's background, and maintenance and flight records, Pollock said.

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