The flight crew, the parent company and federal officials share the blame for this past year’s plane crash in Ohio that killed the pilots and seven people from a suburban Boca Raton commercial real estate firm, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled during a meeting Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
“There were a litany of failures involved” in the wreck of the ExecuFlight plane carrying employees of PEBB Enterprises on a scouting trip of Midwest properties, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said Tuesday in describing layers of problems in the Nov. 10 crash.
The passengers expected a safe flight, Sumwalt said. “Instead they got a company … that ‘had a casual attitude toward standards and compliance.’ ”
ExecuFlight President Danny Lewkowicz said Tuesday afternoon that he was aware of the NTSB’s report but declined immediate comment on it on the advice of legal counsel. According to its website, the Fort Lauderdale-based company still offers charter flights to destinations reaching as far south as South America.
The NTSB board used its findings to urge the Federal Aviation Administration, manufacturers and training centers to make more than a dozen changes to bolster pilot training, monitor flight data more closely and define landing procedures more clearly. FAA officials, they said, needed to do more to make sure its rules were followed.
Those recommendations come after a nearly year-long investigation into the wreck, which happened about two miles short of Akron Fulton International Airport in northeast Ohio.
The fatal descent began when the pilots slowed the Hawker Siddeley 125 two-engine plane below standards, and the plane stalled, a NTSB report says. The jet plunged toward the ground at 2,000 feet per minute, according to NTSB reports, and hit trees about 55 feet up. It struck an apartment building as it neared the ground at about 3 p.m. on a foggy, cloudy afternoon. The building burst into flames but no residents were injured.
The board ruled that some of the people on board the flight might have survived the initial impact, had the plane not caught fire and the flames rapidly spread.
While weather conditions were a concern early in the investigation, the board’s findings determined the flight crew failed to follow multiple standard operating procedures. Neither alcohol nor drugs were a factor in the crash, the board ruled, although the first officer, who was flying the plane, hadn’t taken the mandatory 10-hour break between flights.
The board said ExecuFlight had a “check-the-box approach” to regulations, and throughout the meeting NTSB members routinely mentioned Capt. Oscar Chavez’ failing test scores. He answered 40 percent of test questions correctly, the board found, though records show he scored 100 percent.
It was not necessarily inadequate training that caused the crew to be unprepared, the board determined, but rather apathetic enforcement.
Both Chavez and the pilot, flight officer Renato Marchese, had been fired from other jobs recently for performance problems. ExecuFlight knew about the terminations, the board said, but failed to learn why. The spouses of at least two passengers killed in the plane wreck have filed negligence suits against the dead pilots’ estates and ExecuFlight.
Neither engine nor system failures were to blame for the wreck, according to NTSB findings, but Sumwalt said “it shows a pervasive disregard for doing things right.”
The board noted the company’s “sloppy” procedures, including inaccurate maintenance records and outdated landing techniques. The NTSB’s official report released Tuesday says the accident was probably caused by the flight crew mismanaging the landing and violating procedures to place the airplane in an unsafe, unstable path that led to it stalling.
But the blame isn’t entirely on the crew, the agency said: “Contributing to the accident were ExecuFlight’s casual attitude toward compliance with standards; its inadequate hiring, training and operational oversight of the flight crew; the company’s lack of a formal safety program; and the FAA’s insufficient oversight of the company’s training program and flight operations.”
ExecuFlight said in a statement to the NTSB that it had a “robust safety culture” and had thoroughly investigated the pilots before hiring them.
But a former ExecuFlight pilot, Donnie Shackleford, testified to the NTSB that the man at the controls in Akron, Marchese, worried about being experienced enough to fly with the flight’s captain, Chavez.
“He didn’t feel like that, between the two of them, he didn’t feel like they had enough experience to fly together,” said Shackleford, whom ExecuFlight dismissed after a dispute about plane safety. “ … He said, ‘If they put me and Oscar together, we’re going to get ourselves killed.’ ”
Maintenance problems did not help. Sumwalt pointed toward the removal of a 300-pound piece of equipment that wasn’t noted on some records, which was later reinstalled without being noted on others. Records released in April show the airplane was trying to land in Akron about 600 pounds heavier than the pilots thought, and about 300 pounds heavier than the manufacturer recommended as the maximum landing weight.
Cockpit recordings released by the NTSB captured Chavez coaching Marchese during the fatal plunge. The board, however, said Chavez should have stepped in, as he was the lead pilot.
“You can’t keep decreasing your speed,” he can be heard saying to Marchese. “If you keep decreasing your speed … we gonna stall.”
About two minutes later Chavez warns Marchese again. “You’re diving. You’re diving. Don’t dive. Two thousand feet per minute, buddy,” Chavez said on the recording. That’s twice the rate an aircraft should descend for a landing, and they were descending without a safe landing area in sight, the NTSB noted.
Chavez’ lax attitude toward protocol is representative of the parent company, ExecuFlight, the board said.
“We hope that this investigation will prevent such tragedies in the future,” said Christopher Hart, NTSB chairman.
Staff writer Julius Whigham II and staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.
THOSE WHO DIED
Seven employees of PEBB Enterprises died: Gary Shapiro, 35, of Boca Raton; Diana Suriel, 32, of Wellington; Thomas Virgin, 31, of Boca Raton; Jared Weiner, 35, of Boca Raton; Ori Rom, 32, of Delray Beach; Nick Weaver, 34, of Boca Raton; and Diane Smoot, 50, of Delray Beach.