Air crash report critical of firm

An Edmonton-based engineering company harshly criticized in a report into an air crash that killed its boss and four others refused comment on the document Thursday, but did say it no longer operates its own planes.

EDMONTON — An Edmonton-based engineering company harshly criticized in a report into an air crash that killed its boss and four others refused comment on the document Thursday, but did say it no longer operates its own planes.

“They (employees) fly commercial,” said Margot Ross-Graham, vice-president of integration at Williams Engineering.

Ross-Graham said they will comment at a later date on the report, but wouldn’t say when or who would speak to it.

The company’s only formal response was a three-sentence news release saying the report brought back difficult memories for staff.

“Our thoughts go to the families for whom this report will invariably remind them of this very tragic event,” said the release.

Ross-Graham was referring to the Transportation Safety Board report into the March 28, 2008, crash near Wainwright in east-central Alberta. All aboard were killed, including the pilot, 40-year-old company president Reagan Williams.

The report said a combination of factors led to disaster: a worn gyroscope knocked out the autopilot on the modified Piper PA-46 Jetprop, sending the high-performance plane into a crisis that Williams didn’t have the skill or training to overcome.

The report also blamed a plane that was drastically overweight and unbalanced, a company that failed to follow its own safety rules and an oversight agency that failed to oversee.

“There were deficiencies in their (Williams’) safety management system,” Wray Tsuji, a senior Transportation Safety investigator, said Thursday.

The single-engine plane, according to the report, was in trouble soon after it took off in ice and cold temperatures from Edmonton’s City Centre Airport around 7:30 a.m. that morning en route to Winnipeg.

On board were fellow Williams executives Rhonda Quirke, 36, Phillippe Allard, 33, and contractors Trevor Korol and Shaun Stewart.

The plane levelled off at its assigned maximum altitude of 27,000 feet, just above a deck of heavy clouds.

But 20 minutes later, it had mysteriously climbed 400 feet higher. What’s happening? the air controller asked Williams, according to the report.

Gyroscope is having problems, he reported back.

The plane then began to roller-coaster — back to 27,000 feet, then down 100 feet, up 500 feet, down 400 feet.

Williams called again: the gyro had toppled. It was out, signalling the beginning of the flight’s final 17 minutes.

Williams had to fly the plane on “partial panel,” relying on other instruments, such as altimeter and air speed, to figure out where he was while working the elevators and other instruments to keep the plane level.

Williams was out of his depth, said Tsuji. He had about six hours of formal training on the plane since it had been retrofitted from a turboprop. He had no documented training on flying it partial panel. In fact, said Tsuji, he hadn’t had any partial panel training on any plane for seven years.

The plane hurtled on at 450 km/h, handling like a high-speed shopping cart. It was way overloaded. With the fuel load, there was room for 267 extra pounds, essentially one pilot and a bag.

Instead, he had four passengers, sitting such that with the fuel, the plane was aft-heavy, way off centre.

Williams radioed for help, calling for a block of airspace and a weather report for nearby Saskatoon. He should’ve slowed down to help gain control and reduce stress on the plane, but he didn’t, said Tsuji.

You’re descending again, the controller advised Williams. The plane dropped a thousand feet, levelled off, then rose 500.

Williams fought to keep the nose up and the plane level, likely dipping in and out of horizon-obscuring clouds, said Tsuji.

You’re going down again, the controller advised, down 2,000 feet, then another 2,000, then further.

The fight was lost. As the nose pushed down, the aerodynamic load on the right wing failed, then the left, then the tail and the plane, now nearly vertical, spun toward the snow-covered rolling hills, trees and shrublands near the Battle River at a blurring 740 km/h.

At 16,000 feet, the stress shredded the wings and the plane began to break apart, parts landing in fields, another hitting the top of a construction trailer.

The plane was level on impact, the fuselage crumpling, debris spread out over kilometres, the tail fin detaching.

Late Thursday, Mandelle Williams, Reagan’s widow, issued a written statement.

“Flying was a passion and way of life for Reagan. Although we have no specific comments, it should be said, everyone in the flying community would agree, that Reagan was a highly eperienced, conscientious and safe pilot.”

The report found other problems:

— The company, then known as A.D. Williams Engineering, didn’t keep pilot training and qualification records as required;

— The company did not conduct an annual risk assessment on the plane as required;

— The plane was flying higher than 25,000 feet, which required supplemental oxygen and masks for the pilot;

— Williams should have had high-altitude training, but didn’t;

— Based on passenger manifests and fuel loads, 12 previous flights were similarly overloaded;

— The gyro was underperforming, its rotor bearings showing excessive wear; Williams had noticed this on previous flights and almost had it fixed before the fatal flight. But when he learned it would take days to get it fixed and the part wasn’t immediately available, he had the old part reinstalled because it was still working within acceptable limits.

The report also criticized the oversight body, the Canadian Business Aviation Association, which, it said, failed in its audit to identify the safety risks in the A.D. Williams operations.

Association president Sam Barone said they are working to fix that.

“We’re all in the safety business here,” said Barone in an interview from Ottawa.

“Anything we can contribute to the advancement of aviation safety we do welcome, and it’s a continuous process of improvement.”

It was the second fatal crash involving an aircraft owned by Williams.

In October 2007, company founder Allen Williams — Reagan’s father — and a senior executive died in a crash near Golden, B.C., although Williams’s three-year-old granddaughter miraculously survived.

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