WASHINGTON - A commuter plane that crashed on takeoff from Charlotte, N.C., in January was 400 to 1,000 pounds overweight, and two bags in its tail baggage compartment were so heavy that it took two handlers to carry each of them, a sign that the plane was tail-heavy as well, people involved in the investigation said.
But government investigators said the flight would probably have proceeded without incident if not for a maintenance error two days before, which they said they believed left the pilots unable to get full motion out of the mechanism that raises the tail and lowers the nose.
The plane, US Airways Express Flight 5481, a Beech 1900d, tilted up to 52 degrees above the horizontal, and then fell out of the sky. Both pilots and all 19 passengers were killed.
Safety issues involving overweight planes have received new attention since the crash. Suspecting that the accident involved overloading of the plane, the FAA ordered the operators of small planes to conduct a survey of the weight of passengers and their bags, and adjust their assumptions accordingly.
It recently told the operators of large planes that they, too, should raise their assumptions by 10 pounds for each passenger and 5 pounds for each checked bag.
The safety board will open two days of hearings into the probable cause of the crash Tuesday. The board does not determine fault.
The airline Air Midwest, the manufacturer and the company that serviced the plane, still may face the question of how to divide the cost of settlements or judgments in suits brought by the families of the passengers and crew.
The hearings will focus heavily on maintenance. The plane's last servicing - during which a technician made a mistake in connecting cables that run from the controls in the cockpit to the parts on the tail that change the plane's pitch, investigators say - was at a hangar in Huntington, W.Va., operated by Raytheon Aerospace. Even though Air Midwest had contracted out its maintenance, it remained responsible for the work done, and the FAA was supposed to inspect the shop.
Substantial evidence exists that the plane was overweight and tail-heavy. Investigators gathered the luggage out of the wreckage, dried it, and found that it came to more than 900 pounds, according to investigators, even after some of it had burned. They are not certain, though, whether all the baggage came from the tail compartment, or whether some was carry-on baggage.