Friday, October 15, 2004

Mystery of jet?s last minutes before crash

Violent descent before crash near Carey?

Express Staff Writer

The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday it would release a final report in about week on the probable cause of crash that shattered a Cessna Citation 500 jet into small pieces near Carey last year and killed the business executive-pilot and two friends who were passengers.

Meanwhile, however, the NTSB released a minutely detailed, 2,986-word account of the investigation into final stages of the jet?s flight, which was to have terminated at Friedman Memorial Airport in early afternoon on March 15, 2003.

Left unexplained for now is the tantalizing mystery of what happened during the final 11 minutes and 27 seconds of the flight when pilot Jay Call and the Salt Lake City Air Route Traffic Control Center were communicating and planning his gradual descent to Hailey.

Call, 62, a pilot with some 14,000 flying hours in airplanes and helicopters, was founder of the 42-state chain of 160 Flying J roadside service plazas. The passengers, Richard and Ilene Germer, both 56, were returning to the Wood River Valley from Salt Lake City, where Germer, a retired executive of Call?s Utah-based firm, reportedly had been treated for cancer. The Germers had recently bought a home in Sun Valley.

What remained of Call?s 1978 model Citation jet was found around dawn the next morning, scattered for 1,023 feet along a path after impact in an area of rolling hills and mountainous terrain some 10 miles north of Carey and 15 miles east-southeast of Friedman Memorial Airport.

The NTSB description leaves no doubt that the crash was violent. Impact was in a 40-degree nose down attitude. The cabin and cockpit were destroyed. The aircraft?s door was squeezed to a width of only eight inches. The largest debris was a six-foot section of the wing.

The NTSB said tests on the two engines and cockpit instruments indicated no malfunctions prior to the crash.

But the NTSB report from tracking radar data indicates unusual maneuvers by the jet which had been cleared in steps from 24,000 feet to 19,000 feet and then to 15,000 feet, but for explained reasons climbed back 20,300 feet then was lost by the Salt Lake City radar controller at 15,900 feet.

The final minutes of the flight as reported by the NTSB begin with the pilot radioing at 2:07:08 p.m. he was at 24,000 feet. At 2:08:25 p.m., pilot Call asked Salt Lake Center whether ?aircraft were missing the approach into Hailey? due to cloud and rain conditions at Friedman Memorial and some pilot reports of icing at flight altitudes.

The radar controller advised the pilot at 2:08:29 p.m. that ?you can make it in on the RNAV (area navigation systems) approach, sir. Are you able the RNAV??

?That?s affirmative,? replied pilot Call.

Then, at 2:08:37 p.m., the controller in Salt Lake told the pilot, ?The last one made it in on an RNAV (approach) just at the bare minimums (of visibility and ceiling) and Hailey says it?s getting worse there, so I got a couple (aircraft) stacked up right now. I?ll get you lower and a holding pattern set up. I?ll put you in a hold at Oreye if that?s going to work for you, sir. N70FJ (the jet?s call sign) cleared direct Oreye. Expect holding at Oreye and expect the RNAV approach from there once I get the pattern clear, sir.?

(Oreye is the name of point known as an initial approach fix designated on aviation approach maps along a northwesterly heading some 23 miles from Friedman airport. The jet would?ve been placed in a circling hold pattern at reduced speed awaiting clearance to land after other aircraft had been released from their holds at other fixes.)

The pilot acknowledged at 2:09:07 p.m., ?Direct Oreye for Fox Juliet.?

The jet was cleared to 15,000 feet at 2:09:09, which the pilot confirmed.

At 2:10:21, Salt Lake Center instructed the pilot to ?expedite? descent to 16,000 feet because of other aircraft in the area. ?Expedite? is an aviation euphemism for ?right now!?

There was no response from the jet, according to the NTSB.

From 2:10:33 until 2:17:21 p.m., the NTSB reported that Salt Lake Center made 10 unsuccessful attempts to reach the jet.

Then, after requesting at 2:17:26 p.m. for the pilot to ?ident if you hear me? (punch a transmit button on the cockpit transponder that records aircraft as blips on radar), the controller received N70FJ?s transponder code at 2:17:39 p.m.

Although no further voice transmissions came from the jet, the controller at 2:18:36 p.m. cleared the Citation to 15,000 feet and to the Oreye fix for a GPS approach. The final radar image was caught at 19,700 feet.

The pilot apparently overflew and bypassed the Oreye fix to where he?d been cleared.

In examining Call?s medical history, the NTSB said that Call was on several medications that generally are prescribed for hypertension, prostate conditions and heart rate. A physician?s October 2002 report obtained by the NTSB said ?no cardiac symptoms? in Call.

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