Air Midwest Airlines had operated for thirty-six years without a fatal aircraft accident involving passengers. The parent company had not had one either. That all changed on the morning of January 8, 2003.
Air Midwest flight 5481, a Beechcraft 1900D (N233YV) operating that morning as US Airways Express was scheduled to depart Charotte-Douglas International airport in North Carolina for a flight to Greenville-Spartan airport in South Carolina. The flight took off at 8:46 AM and, as the landing gear was retractied, the nose pitched up suddenly and the two pilots were unable to control the pitch resulting in a stall which caused the airplane to plummet nearly 1,000 feet to the ground. They crashed into a US Airways maintenance hangar on the field, erupting into a fireball, and all twenty-one souls onboard (the pilots and nineteen passengers) perished in the crash.
The flight was commanded by 25-year-old Captain Katie Leslie, a graduate of the Louisiana Tech University flight program, and her 27-year-old first officer, Jonathan Gibbs. Captain Leslie was hired by Mesa Air Group in March 2000 and upgraded to captain at Air Midwest on the BE1900D one year later. She had over 2,700 flight hours (1,800 at Air Midwest). First Officer Gibbs was a graduate of the Mesa Airlines Pilot Development program at San Juan College in Farmington, NM, and had been at Air Midwest since May 2001 with 1,100 hours of total flight time (706 at Air Midwest.)
The NTSB investigation showed that the pilots, when computing the takeoff weight, had properly used average passenger and bag weights as allowed per the FAA and should have been within the allowable weight and center of gravity limits. When the NTSB recreated the actual passenger and bag weights, they estimated the aircraft was loaded 700 pounds over the maximum limit and slightly aft of the allowable center of gravity limits. But even with the reconstructed numbers, the NTSB investigators were perplexed because the pilots should easily have had more than enough elevator authority to overcome any nose-up tendency caused by the slightly aft-loaded CG.
The investigation discovered that the airplane was in for a maintenance inspection at a contracted maintenance facility in Huntington, WV, two nights prior to the accident and that a mechanic being trained on BE1900 maintenance re-tensioned a loose elevator control cable. The mechanic skipped a couple of steps in the procedure and did not confirm the angle of the elevator when the control column was moved full fore and full aft after he tightened the cable. Had he done so, he would have seen that it was out of adjustment and the nose down elevator angle when the control wheel was moved full forward was insufficient to overcome the aft CG of the accident airplane. It was the out-of-rig cable that led to the fatal stall. There were eight flights completed between the maintenance work and the fatal crash, but none of those airplanes were loaded as far aft as the accident airplane.
As a result of post-crash legal proceedings and as part of the settlement agreement, Air Midwest did something never done before in aviation. Even though the true cause of the accident was a mistake by a contracted maintenance worker not employed by Air Midwest, the company took responsibility for the accident and the president of Air Midwest, Greg Stephans, issued a public apology for the crash.
The crash site
Investigators comb through the wreckage.
View of the crash site from the Charlotte terminal across the field.
The accident airplane taking off in Charlotte six months prior to the accident.
Captain Katie Leslie
First Officer Jonathan Gibbs
Air Midwest President Greg Stephans issuing a public apology for the crash.