NTSB: Joy Riding Pilots Caused 2004 Pinnacle Crash

Jan. 10, 2007
The safety board also found that the pilots had not been adequately trained in how to fly at high altitudes and how to handle emergencies.

WASHINGTON -- Federal crash investigators Tuesday blamed a pair of joking pilots who flouted safety rules for a 2004 crash in Missouri that highlighted shortcomings in training and safety oversight at regional airlines.

Capt. Jesse Rhodes, 31, and co-pilot Peter Cesarz, 23, died when Pinnacle Airlines Flight 3701 crashed 2 1/2 miles short of an airport in Jefferson City, Mo., on Oct. 14, 2004, after losing power in both engines.

The pilots of the Bombardier CRJ-200, who were moving the jet from Little Rock to Minneapolis with no passengers aboard, repeatedly violated company safety rules, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said. They whooped and joked on what became a joy ride, pulling the jet into steep climbs and attempted to fly at the plane's highest altitude, 41,000 feet.

They allowed the jet to slow down too much, causing the engines to snuff out. The NTSB ruled that the accident resulted from the pilots' "unprofessional behavior, deviation from standard operating procedures and poor airmanship."

The safety board also found that the pilots had not been adequately trained in how to fly at high altitudes and how to handle emergencies. A problem with the GE jet engines, which froze and could not be restarted, contributed to the crash, the NTSB ruled.

  • Click here to read a related-story on the previoulsy unreported problems with the GE engine.

NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said Pinnacle's safety system was deficient. All large carriers now monitor flights with computers and encourage employees to report safety problems without fear of discipline -- programs that would have made the pilots' actions less likely. Pinnacle, like most regional airlines, had none of those programs before the crash, the NTSB said.

"They didn't cause the accident, but I'm going to suggest that they may have enabled the accident," Sumwalt said of the airline.

Pinnacle spokesman Philip Reed said that the airline has added safety monitoring and reporting programs found at larger airlines. It's also revamped pilot training.

"The culture of safety does exist," Reed said. "We practice it every day."

Several board members said that the accident raised broader questions about safety among regional carriers, which have grown rapidly in recent years as the larger carriers have suffered financial setbacks. Only two regional carriers, Pinnacle and ExpressJet, have computerized flight monitoring, the NTSB said.

"There is still a big differential between what is happening at these regional carriers and the major carriers," board member Kitty Higgins said.

Regional Airline Association President Roger Cohen said most regional carriers are adopting safety programs similar to large carriers. The federal standards governing regional and large airlines are the same, Cohen said.

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