Federal investigators examining a fiery seaplane crash that killed 20 people last December in Miami have discovered maintenance problems at the small but popular airline that operated the flight.
Several pilots quit their jobs at Chalk's Ocean Airways in the year before the crash out of concern over maintenance, according to documents released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB also said it found evidence of improper repairs and undocumented maintenance.
Chalk's Flight 101 lost its right wing shortly after takeoff on Dec. 19 and plunged into a shipping channel. The plane, which burst into flames, was captured on video during its final moments. Everyone on board was killed, including three infants.
The NTSB said the Grumman Mallard G73 took off with a nearly 16-inch-long crack in its right wing. A cause for the crash hasn't been determined, but the crack is a central focus of the investigation.
According to Chalk's pilots who were interviewed by investigators, a group of pilots discussed problems a year before the accident. "There was a widespread perception that pilot complaints were not properly addressed by maintenance and that it was often necessary to write up the same problem repeatedly until it was fixed," according to an interview with Robert Lutz, a captain at Chalk's whose comments were included in the NTSB reports. Lutz said three pilots left the airline as a result, but Lutz and others said the maintenance had recently improved, the NTSB said.
Investigators examining the wreckage found that metal near the crack had once been repaired, according to the NTSB documents. Investigators could not find any record at the airline documenting the repair work.
Other maintenance problems included substandard repairs on the wing that failed and an uninspected repair performed in 2000, according to the NTSB. Rivets were installed improperly on the wing, including one that apparently was attached in a way that prompted a crack, the NTSB said.
The airline, which stopped flying its fleet of seaplanes after the crash, operated between Florida and nearby islands. The saltwater that seaplanes come in contact with can quickly corrode aluminum and other metal parts. Records indicate that the plane that crashed and others in Chalk's fleet had numerous repairs of corroded areas. The plane in the accident was built in May 1947 and had made 39,743 flights.
Chalk's did not respond to a request for comments on the NTSB records.
The Federal Aviation Administration is developing an inspection program for the remaining Grumman Mallards in the USA, but until those inspections are performed, the planes cannot fly, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
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