But For a Bolt

But For a Bolt

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

A missing bolt felled an Emery Worldwide Airlines DC-8 plane on takeoff in February 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board has ruled.

The board issued its findings Aug. 5 in the long-running review of the northern California crash that killed the three crew members on board. The missing bolt was part of the controls for the plane''s right elevator, which is used to control the pitch of a plane''s nose. The NTSB blamed faulty maintenance for the lost part but investigators were unable to pinpoint the moment at which the bolt was lost.

"This was a tragic occurrence," NTSB Chairwoman Ellen Engleman said. "And maintenance was a key factor here. No matter what the crew did, they would not save the plane."

Engleman said the accident would have been preventable, had maintenance been properly performed.

The converted cargo plane carrying clothing, automotive fuses and automatic transmission fluid crashed in an auto auction yard just outside Mather Field, an all-cargo facility on an old Air Force Base in Rancho Cordova, Calif. The flight lasted about two minutes with the crew immediately realizing it was in trouble. Crew members'' families have filed lawsuits against Emery''s parent company CNF. Those lawsuits are pending.

"We just want to again express our condolences to the families of the crew members," CNF spokeswoman Nancy Colvert said after the NTSB presented its findings. "We''re just glad that the investigation is over."

The unusually long investigation included the threat of a hearing on the safety of cargo flights and a marathon hearing, conducted by NTSB member and aircraft mechanic John Goglia, specifically on the Emery crash. During the course of the investigation, in August 2001, Emery voluntarily grounded its fleet after the Federal Aviation Administration threatened to revoke the airline''s operating certificate.

Under the corporate banner of Redwood City, Calif.-based Menlo Worldwide since a December 2001 reorganization, Emery returned its planes to the lessors and now uses contract carriers to fly its cargo. The domestic airline shut its doors as part of the reorganization. Menlo is a subsidiary of Palo Alto, Calif.-based CNF.

The company''s air freight services remain in its Dayton, Ohio hub. Contract carriers that include World Airways and Ryan International fly nightly flights for Menlo under aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance agreements.

The 2000 crash was the only fatal crash in Emery''s history but the airline had been dogged by earlier safety concerns. The McDonnell Douglas DC-8-71 plane that crashed was built in the early 1960s and had been a passenger plane for United Airlines. The doomed flight 17 had flown in from Reno, Nev., and was on a stopover on its way to Dayton.

The plane''s most recent heavy maintenance "D-check" had been performed the previous November by Smyrna, Tenn.-based Tennessee Technical Services LLC, an Emery maintenance contractor. The investigation could not determine if the actions that led to the loss of the bolt occurred at that time or during subsequent less-involved maintenance work.

The NTSB faulted the maintenance procedures used to service the aircraft and issued 15 recommendations along with its crash findings to prevent similar recurrences. The Federal Aviation Administration, which received the recommendations, will decide whether to act on them.

The missing bolt should have connected the right elevator control tab crank fitting to the pushrod but had dislodged from the fitting. According to the NTSB''s findings, that ultimately resulted in the right elevator commanding "an extreme nose-up pitch attitude that the pilots were unable to overcome despite large nose-down forces applied to the control columns."

The investigation initially focused on the idea that cargo shifted during flight to cause the crash, but the lead NTST investigator Frank Hilldrup said shifting cargo was not a factor. The board looked at an array of factors, including the plane''s weight and balance, weather and air traffic control, and ruled out all other possibilities.

"The bolt must have been improperly secured at some point during maintenance activities," Hilldrup said.

Board members said they believe their safety recommendations are important because of the number of DC-8 aircraft that remain in service. There are 220 remaining worldwide, with 148 of those currently in service and the other 72 in storage. Of the 148, 110 are U.S.-registered planes.