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Pilot in Wellstone crash considered canceling flight

Documents reveal concern about weather

From Beth Lewandowski
CNN Washington Bureau

Sen. Paul Wellstone was one of eight people killed in the October 25 plane crash.
Sen. Paul Wellstone was one of eight people killed in the October 25 plane crash.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Worried about the weather, pilot Richard Conry almost decided to cancel the October 25 flight that killed Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone and seven others, according to documents released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

"OK, ah, you know what, I don't think I'm going to take the flight," Conry told a preflight controller from Princeton Flight Service after receiving the morning's weather report forecasting light snow and mist, freezing temperatures and low ground visibility for northeastern Minnesota.

That conversation was the first of several Conry would have with controllers on the icy conditions, which investigators have said may have played a role in the crash, less than two weeks before last year's November elections. Wellstone was in a tight re-election campaign at the time of the crash.

The NTSB report, several hundred pages in length, does not provide a final determination of what caused the crash that killed Wellstone, Conry, Wellstone's wife, adult daughter, three campaign workers and co-pilot Michael Guess. Those conclusions are not expected for at least several more months.

The report said one controller told NTSB investigators he thought the pilot seemed "stressed and apprehensive" about taking the flight from Eden Prairie to Eveleth, Minnesota

The controller also said he "was personally concerned someone was putting pressure on him to take the flight."

The report does not indicate who, if anyone, might have been pressuring Conry.

Another controller thought Conry was surprisingly unconcerned about the freezing conditions in a later call and said Conry asked the controller the direction of his destination and its code destination name, indicating he did not have much experience flying in the area.

"Eveleth, that's straight north isn't it?" Conry asked the controller, according to the NTSB report.

After receiving reports that the weather was improving slightly, Conry decided the conditions "met his minimums" and decided to embark on the flight, according to controller statements documented in the report.

Apparently, that satisfied Wellstone, who was personally appraised of the weather conditions, according to the report.

Several witnesses and Conry's wife said that Wellstone often requested Conry to be his pilot and trusted his flying ability.

Conry flew Wellstone on at least 12 occasions before the crash, according to Conry's log book.

The witnesses also said Wellstone had a reputation as a "nervous flyer" who had a "fear of flying," but that morning he seemed calm and confident in the decision to fly.

Conry reportedly told Wellstone that the aircraft, a King Air A100, was equipped with deicing equipment and that he had contingency plans if the plane's wings should ice, including changing destination to nearby Duluth or flying at a lower altitude.

Meteorologists asked to determine if the freezing weather conditions and low visibility were bad enough to cause the crash reported to the NTSB that they believed light to moderate icing was possible in the Eveleth area, but they did not consider it "an extreme event."

They also said that two pilots flying into Eveleth in the hours before the 10:30 a.m. crash reported light icing at 3,000 to 5,000 feet and some moderate icing at higher elevations. However, both flights landed without incident.

The report also documents concerns about the flying skills and experience of Conry, 55, and co-pilot Guess, 30, which could be a contributing factor in the crash.

A pilot who flew with Conry two days before the crash said he had suggested that Conry consider retiring from flying after he made a mistake in the cockpit during takeoff. That pilot said Conry inadvertently activated the autopilot rather than the yaw damper, which helps keep a plane level. The plane quickly recovered, but both agreed at the time that the mistake "could have been a problem."

The next day, Conry was administered an extensive performance test by Aviation Charter, which owned the plane that crashed. Conry passed the test.

But other colleagues at Aviation Charter expressed concern about Conry's flying ability, saying he rarely flew the planes himself, preferring to let the co-pilot do it. They also said Guess performed below average at flight school and had difficulty landing aircraft without assistance.

Earlier NTSB reports indicated that Wellstone's plane drifted off course on its approach to Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport and crashed without a distress call to air traffic control operators.

NTSB investigators reported no evidence of in-flight breakup of any of the aircraft's structures, nor did they find evidence of fire before the crash.

Multiple witnesses reported seeing the plane flying exceptionally low and fast seconds before the crash. Some also reported hearing the engine cut off before the plane came down.

The plane burst into flames when it hit in a remote wooded area two miles southeast of the Eveleth airport. The plane was destroyed by the impact and subsequent fire.

Five of the crash victims died of multiple traumatic injuries received in the crash with no evidence of soot or smoke inhalation, indicating they died instantly.

Three, showed some evidence of smoke inhalation.

Search and rescue teams were not able to reach the plane until several hours after it crashed and the fire was not contained for hours afterward.

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