D.C. crash motive eludes probers

September 16, 1994|By Newsday

WASHINGTON -- Federal investigators have discovered that the pilot who crashed a small plane on the White House grounds turned on a radar beacon designed to pinpoint his location for air-traffic controllers as he approached northwest Washington in the final minutes of his fatal flight.

But Frank Corder, the Cessna pilot who died in the crash, did not use the proper location code for the transponder, as the device is known, and didn't attempt to contact controllers as required, a source close to the investigation said yesterday. A skeleton crew works at National Airport in the early-morning hours -- Mr. Corder crashed at 1:49 a.m. Monday -- and a controller staffs the radar only when aircraft are scheduled to arrive in the airspace, officials said.

Just 10 to 20 minutes before the crash, the source said, a radar controller had directed a passenger flight from TACA International, El Salvador's national airline, en route from Dulles Airport outside Washington to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. The controller then left the scope to attend to administrative tasks.

The disclosure raises new questions about Mr. Corder's intentions during the flight. Officials have ruled out any attempt on the president's life, but are still debating whether Mr. Corder planned to commit suicide or died during an ill-fated publicity stunt. Using the transponder would seem to indicate that Mr. Corder wanted to be noticed by controllers, but improper use of the transponder's location code makes it unclear what he was trying to do, investigators said.

Mr. Corder was able to steal the rental plane because the keys had been left in it. The person who had rented the plane earlier in the evening returned it with the keys on the pilot's seat because the rental office was closed, investigators said.

Contrary to earlier reports that Mr. Corder approached the White House with the plane's engine turned off, officials have determined that the engine was running at the time of the crash. No suicide note has been found.

The medical examiner detected traces of cocaine in Mr. Corder's blood and said he had a blood alcohol level of 0.045, just above the legal limit for flying.

Dave Adams, a spokesman for the Secret Service, which is heading the investigation, declined to comment about the transponder.

The information concerning the transponder was discovered during a review of computer data stored in the National Airport radar. The computer retains more information than what is readily observed on the scope, the source said.

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