Bad Repair Cited In Fatal Plane Crash

Federal investigators have cited faulty repair work as the "probable cause" for the plane crash that killed Tahir Cheema, the founder and president of a Toledo, Ohio-based cargo airline, 18 months ago near St. Louis.

Midcoast Aviation, at whose Spirit of St. Louis Airport facility the Grand Aire jet was repaired before the ill-fated flight, "failed to properly install and inspect the elevator trim system resulting in the reversed elevator trim condition and the pilot's failure to maintain clearance with the terrain," the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report issued late Tuesday.

The "probable cause" report was presaged by a "factual" report released earlier in May showing that investigators had focused on control cables for the plane's elevator system - cables that were connected in reverse after being replaced. The elevator system controls whether the plane's nose pitches up or down, causing it to climb or descend.

The latest report listed "the dark night and low ceiling" as contributing factors in the crash.

Mr. Cheema, 50, of Perrysburg, Ohio, and co-pilot Eko Pinardi, 46, of Fort Wayne, Ind., were killed when the Hansa 320 crashed onto the edge of a Missouri River island about two miles west of the airport, in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield, Mo.

Bill Poe, a spokesman for Midcoast Aviation, said the firm would not elaborate on the safety board's findings.

"Midcoast Aviation was a party to the investigation, and we just can't comment beyond the report itself," Mr. Poe said.

James Hartung, president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority and a professed personal friend of Mr. Cheema, said he considered the NTSB finding a form of vindication for the pilot.

"He was a very thorough and safe pilot," Mr. Hartung said. "He would not have taken any physical risk if he did not think he was in complete control of the situation."

Katrina Cheema, Mr. Cheema's divorced first wife who succeeded him as Grand Aire's president, did not return a call yesterday seeking comment.

Although it noted in the report that several terms of a special ferry permit for the flight were violated, and that cold-allergy medication that could have impaired Mr. Cheema's piloting performance was found in his blood, the NTSB did not list those as factors.

Elizabeth Cory, a spokesman at the Federal Aviation Administration's regional office in Chicago, said it was too early to know if the agency would pursue any regulatory action against Grand Aire for the permit violations, which the NTSB said included flying at night with an unqualified co-pilot and failure to check several avionics systems before departure. "Obviously, we'll be looking at this [report]," Ms. Cory said.

The report also indicated Mr. Cheema may have been in a hurry to get the Hansa jet, which had been in St. Louis for seven months and not flown during that time, back to Toledo after having its elevator trim cables replaced there.

His status as a "current" pilot for the 320 model expired at midnight that night, after which time he would have had to obtain an FAA check-ride before he could legally pilot the plane.

The crash was one of four fatal crashes since 2002 involving planes owned by Grand Aire, based at Toledo Express Airport, or its subsidiary, TriCoastal Air. The most recent, a Feb. 8 crash of a TriCoastal plane near Camden, Tenn., in which a pilot was killed, remains the subject of another NTSB investigation.

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