Plane crash's cause murky

Early report shows no mechanical failure

`Nose flipped up and back'

Cargo pilot went down in neighborhood by BWI


May 26, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Federal investigators have found "no evidence of mechanical failure" in their probe of a May 14 plane crash near Baltimore-Washington International Airport that killed the pilot and narrowly missed several homes, according to a preliminary report issued yesterday.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been investigating what caused a Mitsubishi MU-2B piloted by Thomas F. Lennon to plummet from the sky in Ferndale as residents were leaving for work and school.

The twin-engine, turboprop plane splintered a boat stored in a yard, and its fuselage landed about 15 feet from a resident's front door.

"At this time, there does not appear to be any sign of a mechanical failure, but we're still in the very early stages of this investigation," said Terry Williams, a spokesman for the NTSB.

But Williams cautioned that it could take up to a year for investigators to determine the cause of the crash and to rule out mechanical problems with the plane.

The Mitsubishi MU-2 is a fast, cheap cargo plane with a record of 183 accidents causing almost 200 deaths during the past 36 years.

According to the report, Lennon - an experienced pilot for Epps Aviation, an Atlanta-based company that transports checks and other financial documents - last contacted BWI 10 miles from the landing strip. At the time, he reported no problems and was cleared for landing.

Shortly thereafter, witnesses saw his plane flying alarmingly close to the homes in Ferndale. The farther it dropped, witnesses said, the more the plane began to pitch and roll violently.

The report quoted a witness as saying that as the plane neared a tree line, its "nose flipped up and back."

At 7:24 a.m., Lennon's plane plunged from the sky, shearing off the tops of several trees and crashing onto the manicured front lawn of a home, where it burst into flames and smoke.

Several Ferndale residents called the 34-year-old Pennsylvania pilot a hero for his apparent ability to control the plane, avoiding homes and a school.

After a review of the wreckage, investigators found no glitches in the control panels of the aircraft. Both of the plane's engines - spattered with dirt and debris from the crash - were found to be functioning at the time of the impact. In addition, the plane's landing flaps and gear were up - signaling that Lennon was prepared to ground his aircraft.

Robert Cadwalader, a freight pilot with more than 11,000 hours of flight time, has pored over the records of crashes involving MU-2s - many of which were caused by mechanical failures that forced the planes to roll and pitch uncontrollably.

Reached at his home yesterday in Linthicum, Cadwalader said he hopes investigators consider the plane's record before ruling out a mechanical glitch.

"I think something reduced the pilot's power, putting him in a near-stall condition," he said. In aviation, he said, a "stall" means a sudden drop caused by airflow breaking from the wing.

"Once you're in that, it's virtually impossible in an MU-2 to control the plane - the wing goes down like a shot duck."

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