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NTSB continues Wellstone crash probe

Engine, propeller failure ruled out

From Beth Lewandowski

Wellstone, flanked by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, left, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, during an October news conference.
Wellstone, flanked by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, left, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, during an October news conference.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Federal investigators plan to begin using a flight simulator next week to possibly learn why the plane carrying Sen. Paul Wellstone and seven others crashed October 25, a National Transportation Safety Board statement said Tuesday.

Wellstone, his wife, their daughter, three campaign aides and the plane's two pilots died in the northern Minnesota crash. Wellstone, a two-term Democrat, had been crisscrossing the state in a tough re-election campaign against former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.

The NTSB said it hopes to better determine exactly what actions the pilots took during the approach to the small airport at Eveleth.

Agency investigators also would know why the Beechcraft King Air A100 plane came down without a distress call two miles southeast of the airport, pointed south about 90 degrees away from the runway.

During the approach, the chief pilot, Richard Conry, and the co-pilot, Michael Guess, were dealing with icy weather conditions and poor visibility.

The NTSB has not determined which pilot was flying, though in a written statement it indicated that Conry was most likely piloting the plane and Guess was dealing with radio communications.

A source close to the investigation said the NTSB is focusing on the plane's air speed as a central factor in the accident.

The plane began to lose air speed as it descended out of the clouds toward the airport. That, combined with ice on the wings, could have made it stall and crash short of the runway.

The NTSB also is working with the National Center for Atmospheric Research to better understand icing conditions at the time.

The NTSB reported Tuesday it was continuing to look into the flight crew's employment, pilot and medical records. Of particular interest, sources said, is whether either pilots was unusually fatigued during the 72 hours before the accident.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday it had conducted its own review of Conry's employment records and determined his employer, Aviation Charter of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, had not violated any government regulations in hiring him.

Last month, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and KTSB reported Conry had spent a year in prison on a mail fraud conviction related to a home-building enterprise he once owned.

The FAA said Conry revealed the conviction, as required, when he applied for a commercial pilot's license. The FAA reviewed the application and approved it.

The Star-Tribune also revealed Conry may have lied by saying he gained experience in 1990 as a co-pilot for American Eagle airlines.

But the FAA said the agency requires only that pilots outline the past five years of employment, which Aviation Charter checked, and thus it would not have discovered the discrepancy.

The FAA confirmed that another Aviation Charter employee, Bryan T. Maloney, had his private pilot's license revoked in March 2000 because it was discovered by the FAA that he did not have a commercial pilots license when he told his employer he did.

The FAA said Maloney had begun pilot training with Aviation Charter but had not flown any passengers.

The NTSB also reported Tuesday that tests done on a radio beacon at the Eveleth airport indicated it was "slightly out of tolerance" for conducting an instrument approach.

But several aviation safety experts said it was unlikely that this was a big factor, if at all, in the crash.

FAA spokesman Les Dorr said initial tests on the runway signal showed it was accurate within FAA guidelines from five miles out, but from farther away it was slightly off.

Dorr said this problem typically occurs when tree growth interferes with the signal.

FAA spokesman Liz Cory said the runway signal was last checked six months before the accident.

The NTSB also confirmed Tuesday it had ruled out engine or propeller failure as a factor in the crash after completing a thorough teardown of those parts.

"Both the engines and propellers appear to have been operating at the time of the impact," the NTSB update said.

The statement revealed that aircraft records showed there were no outstanding maintenance items at the time of the crash.

In addition, the NTSB reported that toxicological tests done on the captain and first officer showed no evidence of alcohol or drugs.

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