Croatian crash study points to problems Plane couldn't have flown commercially in the U.S.

April 28, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Capt. Ashley Davis of the Air Force and his co-pilot, Capt. Tim Schafer, had good reasons to forget about trying to land in the pouring rain at Dubrovnik, Croatia, on the afternoon of April 3.

The captains had never seen the Dubrovnik airport, and the lowering rain clouds made it impossible for them to see it now.

Croatia Airlines will not let its own crews land there if both the pilot and co-pilot have never done it before. The Air Force told pilots based in the United States never to land there in anything but clear weather. The Air Force commanders in Europe -- the captains' superiors -- decided to ignore that.

So Captain Davis, 35, and Captain Schafer, 33, pressed on with Flight IFOR 21. Nearly 12 miles out, heading southeast, their military Boeing 737 passed over a navigation beacon. They were right on course. But sometime during the next four minutes something went terribly wrong. A startled U.N. military officer in the hills outside the city heard the jet roar overhead and told a colleague, "That guy's way off course."

The correct flight path to Dubrovnik's single runway was a course of 119 degrees. But the pilots, flying on rudimentary instruments, followed a course of 109 degrees -- straight at the highest mountain for miles around. Seconds later the plane slammed into the peak and exploded, killing all 35 people aboard, including Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. It was 98 feet shy of clearing the summit.

What went wrong that afternoon may never be known -- in part because the Air Force had not installed data or cockpit voice recorders on the plane. Croatian authorities say the crash was caused by pilot error. The Air Force declines to comment on its inquiry.

An examination of the crash shows shortcomings in the equipment and procedures of the Air Force units that fly VIPs around the world. Taken together, they made the landing at Dubrovnik more dangerous. Acknowledging some of those shortcomings, the Pentagon said Friday that it would improve the safety and navigation equipment on its passenger airplanes.

The review shows:

The plane that carried Brown to his death could not have flown commercially in the United States because it would not have met civilian safety standards. The Air Force has resisted meeting those standards. So the planes that fly Cabinet secretaries, lawmakers and the president's family to far-flung airports lack safety innovations pioneered by civilian manufacturers and the military itself. The pilots were navigating with a compass and a radio receiver. Air Force generals called that equipment "primitive" and "rudimentary." A member of the unit that flies VIPs compared it to working with a typewriter in the computer age. The pilots of IFOR 21 had limited experience with the outmoded navigational system used to guide planes to the Dubrovnik airport.

On Feb. 1, after an inspection, the Air Force's Air Mobility Command forbade all U.S.-based planes under its control, including VIP flights from Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, from landing at Dubrovnik except in clear weather and in daylight. The decision by the Air Force command in Europe to fly there anyway -- which it is free to do under present procedures -- demonstrates a "disconnect" within the Air Force, said Maj. Gen. Mike McCarthy, director of Air Force staff operations.

Rescue efforts were chaotic. An automatic signaling device on the plane that should have immediately sent up the radio equivalent of a flare did not work, Croatian officials said. The U.S. military took two hours to start its search and eight hours to reach the wreckage, while the one known survivor of the crash, Sgt. Shelly Kelly of the Air Force, lay in mortal agony on the hillside.

In addition, colleagues of Captain Davis and Captain Schafer in the 76th Airlift Squadron, based in Ramstein, Germany, say they must cope with "get-there-itis," which pits prudence against punctuality when carrying distinguished passengers.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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