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Wellstone Updates: FAA, FBI, Local
Officials Evasive on Key Details

New Data Confirms Weather Not a Factor in Crash

by Joe Taglieri and Michael C. Ruppert

[ Copyright 2002, From The Wilderness Publications, www.fromthewilderness.com. All rights reserved. THIS IS A SUBSCRIBER-ONLY STORY AND MAY NOT BE POSTED ON A WEB SITE WITHOUT EXPRESS WRITTEN PERMISSION. Contact media@copvcia.com. This story may be redistributed, circulated or copied for non-profit purposes only.]

Nov.  27, 2002,  20:00 PST (FTW) [Updated Jan. 21, 2003]  -- The National Transportation Safety Board has said the investigation into the Oct. 25 air disaster that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife, daughter, three campaign staffers and two pilots could take six months. In the meantime as icy weather is trumpeted throughout the news media as the leading suspected cause, the following is a list of information about the crash that is known at this time. This report is an update of known information developed through FTW's investigation in advance of the NTSB's report on the crash.

Flight's Final Moments

Citing NTSB chief Carol Carmody who referred to "air traffic control records," an Oct. 27 New York Times story recounted the plane's final flight: "It took off at 9:37 a.m. from Minneapolis-St. Paul and at 9:48 was issued instructions to climb to 13,000 feet. At 10:01, air traffic control issued a clearance to land at Eveleth, and the pilot was given permission to descend to 4,000 feet. The pilot was also told that there was icing from 9,000 to 11,000 feet. At 10:10, the pilot began his descent. At 10:18, he was cleared for an east-west approach to the runway, and, according to radar, the plane was lined up with the runway.

"'That was the last transmission conversation with the pilot,'" Ms. Carmody, a former CIA employee, said.

"'Everything had been completely normal up until that time, and there was no evidence on the controller's part or from the pilot's voice that there was any difficulty, no reported problems, no expressed concern.'

"At 10:19, according to radar, the plane was descending through 3,500 feet and began to drift southward, away from the runway. Two minutes later, radar recorded the last sighting of the plane at 1,800 feet and a speed of 85 knots just northeast of the accident site.

"'We don't know why the turn was occurring,' Ms. Carmody said. "That's what we hope to find out.'"

A pilot who works at the airport discovered the crash site from the air at approximately 11 a.m., when he saw a cloud of "bluish gray" smoke rising from the ground. At that point he notified the control tower at the Duluth airport 60 miles away. The Duluth tower covers Eveleth, and it gave the Wellstone aircraft clearance to begin a landing approach at 10:18. This was the pilots' last radio communication, about two minutes later.

Local fire and rescue personnel arrived at the scene shortly thereafter, said Steve Shykes, the nearby town of Fayal's volunteer fire chief who was in charge of fire and ambulance personnel at the scene.

Shykes said he arrived at 11:45 that morning to set up his command post on the road about a half mile from the crash site.

   

Crash Site


(click picture to enlarge)

The wreckage was found 2.1 miles southeast of the east end of Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport's (EVM) Runway 27, which is 3 miles southeast of Eveleth, Minn.  The site's swampy, wooded terrain is 30 yards north of Bodas Road, according to a police and fire dispatcher who was at the site. Rescue workers had to use all-terrain vehicles equipped with tracks to access the downed aircraft. In some areas of the site, the mud was waist-deep.

According to investigators and photographs, the wings and tail section broke off as the plane descended into the trees at a steep 25-degree angle and a slow airspeed of 85 knots, compared to the normal 115-knot approach speed. Damage to the propellers indicated to investigators that the engines were running at the time of impact.

Press accounts reported that after impact, a massive fire consumed the rest of the plane, which was facing south, away from the east-west runway. This resulted in the near total disintegration of the fuselage and severe damage to the victims' bodies.

FTW has obtained two Associated Press photos of the crash site. No evidence of fire, charring, or smoke damage was visible on the wreckage shown in those photographs.

Investigators

According to Frank Hilldrup and Paul Schlamm of the NTSB, the investigation is in the analytical phase. No conclusions will be drawn and a report will not be issued for several months.

Dr. Thomas Uncini St. Louis County medical examiner, determined both pilots died from impact, not smoke inhalation, health issues such as a heart attack or stroke, or a gunshot wound. The doctor told reporters he looked for gunshot wounds on all eight victims and found none.

Uncini could not be reached for comment, but according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Nov. 21, he listed the cause of death for all eight victims as "traumatic injury due to, or as a consequence of, an aviation crash with fire."      

The day of the crash, local fire and police investigators said personnel from their departments were on the scene shortly after 11.

Then in the afternoon between noon and 2, FBI agents from the Duluth and Bemiji office arrived at the crash site, according to Paul McCabe, a special agent and spokesman for the FBI office in Minneapolis. At approximately 3 o'clock, McCabe said, agents from Minneapolis arrived.

Throughout the afternoon, the FBI's Evidence Recovery Team searched the crash site for indications that foul play might have been involved. Agents found no evidence to warrant a criminal investigation, "pretty early on," said McCabe, and the NTSB took the lead on the investigation that evening when Carmody and her team arrived at about 8 p.m.

There are many unresolved questions as to the points of origin and assignments of the first FBI agents at the scene. Special agents from the Minneapolis office are known to have been at the scene approximately 2.5 hours after the crash, but the exact time of their arrival is a question that neither the FBI or incident commanders at the scene seem able to answer definitively.

McCabe's explanation contradicts reporter Christopher Bollyn of the American Free Press, who said he spoke to a female employee of the FBI Duluth office who said agents from Minneapolis -- not Duluth -- were the first to arrive at the crash site.

And Bollyn quoted St. Louis County Sheriff Rick Wahlberg as saying that he first saw FBI agents at the crash site "early in the afternoon, about noon."

When FTW contacted Wahlberg, he said he arrived at the crash site "around 1:30" and saw that FBI agents from Minneapolis who he knows personally were already on the scene. Minneapolis is about 175 miles from Eveleth, and driving time between the two cities is about 2.5 hours, according to local residents familiar with the route -- a large portion of which is two-lane highway.

McCabe said agents from Duluth and Bemiji could have easily responded to the scene around noon, but he wasn't sure of agents' exact arrival times. When asked if logs were kept with such arrival times, McCabe said, "We don't really keep log time, per se, like that...Like when I write reports on whatever investigation I do, you don't put times in there. It's a day, it shows the investigation was conducted on such-and-such a day."

Lt. Tim Harkenen of the St. Louis County Sheriffs department was the law enforcement incident commander at the scene. Harkenen said on Nov. 25 he would retrieve his files and look up the logged arrival times of various personnel who were at the crash site, but since that initial contact, he has not taken or returned FTW's calls.

FTW also requested from the FAA the maintenance and certification "337" documents for the aircraft in question. The order for a Federal Express overnight shipment was placed Nov. 13 with the administration's Aircraft Registration Branch in Oklahoma City, but as of this story's publication, no documents have been delivered. Calls to the FAA have failed to yield an explanation as to why the documents have not arrived as promised. FAA form 337s are public records and by law must be made available to anyone who requests them.

Witnesses

Gary Ulman, who co-owns Taconite Aviation based out of the Eveleth airport, took his plane up after receiving word from the Duluth tower that the Wellstone plane failed to land on EVM's Runway 27.  

"Approach called up here to me on the telephone and asked if the airplane was on the ground. And I told them no, it wasn't," said Ulman. When he went outside to double check the tarmac, he phoned the Duluth tower back to confirm that the Wellstone plane had not landed. The controller called rescue personnel, said Ulman, and he took his plane up to search for the missing flight.

Ulman and other local pilots who flew into Eveleth's airport that day said icing was not at a dangerous level and have characterized the weather conditions at the time of the crash as not dangerous flying weather.

"I don't think icing had an effect," said Ulman, who took his plane up twice after the crash -- first to find the wreckage, then with Chief Shykes to help direct the fire and rescue personnel to the site.

Local residents Rodney Allen, Megen Hill, and Kim Hill were reported to have seen or heard the plane as it flew over their homes moments before it crashed.

The Aircraft

The Beech King Air A-100 was built in 1979 and seated eight passengers and two pilots, though only one pilot was required for standard operation. Wellstone traveled with two pilots as a safety precaution. The plane was a dual Pratt/Whitney engine turbo-prop, registered as N41BE, serial no. B-245.  

Executive Aviation owned and chartered the aircraft, which was not required to have a cockpit voice recorder or flight data recorder, according to the FAA and Mary Milla, a spokeswoman for the charter flight company in Eden Prairie, Minn.  

Federal aviation regulations require commuter aircraft with 10 or more seats to have a flight data recorder. Aircraft with six or more seats and requiring two pilots for standard operation must be equipped with a cockpit voice recorder, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Paul Takemoto.  

The King Air is very widely used for charter services. It has a fatal accident rate 25 percent lower than all privately owned and chartered turbo props, according to the Associated Press citing Robert Breiling, a Florida-based aviation consultant who studies business aviation accident rates.  

The aircraft was equipped with de-icing boots, which are designed to break through ice that accumulates on the wings.

Investigators would not comment on whether the de-icing boots or any other equipment was functioning properly.

Weather Conditions

Automated instruments at the Eveleth airport at 10:14 a.m. CDT indicated the wind was calm and the visibility was three miles in light snow. There were scattered clouds at 400 feet and overcast at 700 feet.

The temperature was 33 Fahrenheit, and the dew point was 32 Fahrenheit.

The altimeter, which measures a plane's height based on barometric pressure, was at 30.06 inches of mercury.

Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport

The airport has no control tower and is equipped with a VOR/DME landing guidance system. The minimum altitude for a landing approach is 371 feet from less than 2 miles out. If a pilot does not have visual sight of the runway at this altitude, he or she is required to call in a "missed approach" and go around the airport for another landing attempt.

In the case of this crash, there is no reason to suspect the pilots could not see the runway because the cloud ceiling was 700 feet. Ulman also doubted a missed approach was happening because there was no contact from the pilots indcating this.  

The control tower at the airport in Duluth, which is about 60 miles south of Eveleth, monitors radar covering EVM's airspace. There is also an FAA radar station in Nashwauk, 40 miles west of Eveleth.

Pilots

Richard Conry, an experienced pilot with more than 5,000 hours of flying time, was the doomed flight's captain. Conry, 55, had reportedly flown into the Eveleth airport many times prior to Oct. 25, and Wellstone often requested Conry.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Conry served federal time because of a 1990 conviction for mail fraud, and he apparently exaggerated his level of experience flying large passenger aircraft for the airline American Eagle before being hired to fly Executive Aviation charters.

It has also been reported that Conry worked as dialysis nurse, and he completed a shift at a Minneapolis hospital at 9 o'clock the night before his scheduled flight with Wellstone on the morning of Oct. 25.  

Michael Guess, 30, had 650 hours of flying time and was employed as a pilot by Executive Aviation in April 2001.

In a chilling footnote The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on October 26th that Guess had performed administrative work at the Pan Am Flight School in Minneapolis where Zacarias Moussaoui had been taking flight lessons. Not only had Guess and Moussaoui known each other but Guess had "inadvertently" given Moussaoui access to a computer program on flying a 747 jumbo jet. The FBI later found the proprietary program copied on his laptop computer - the one which Supervisory Special Agent David Frasca - head of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit in Washington - had been preventing the Minneapolis field agents from searching.


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