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California and the West

Cargo Airline Had Problems Long Before Crash, FAA Says

Accident: Complaints of loads inadequately secured and shifting dangerously in planes prompted inspection, official says.

February 18, 2000|JENIFER WARREN and ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

RANCHO CORDOVA, Calif. — Emery Worldwide had problems with inadequately secured cargo on its planes long before Wednesday's fatal crash of a DC-8 cargo jet, a Federal Aviation Administration official said Thursday.

One of the pilots of Emery's Flight 17 had reported a "center-of-gravity" problem moments after taking off from Mather Airport, a former Air Force base in suburban Sacramento. That could mean the plane's cargo shifted dangerously or was positioned improperly in the fuselage of the long, four-engine jetliner, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator said.

Center-of-gravity problems can make a plane difficult--if not impossible--to fly.

The FAA official, Terge Kristiansen, who once had responsibility for checking some of Emery's planes, said the agency has had misgivings about the way the company strapped down cargo in some airliners.

"There were some problems with it, we can't deny that," Kristiansen said. "It's fair to say there were concerns raised."

Last year, he said, those concerns and pilot complaints prompted a comprehensive FAA inspection of Emery planes that focused on "loading issues."

But neither Kristiansen nor an FAA spokesman in Seattle would divulge the results of that inspection. They also declined to comment on a former Emery pilot's contention that the FAA had grounded some of the airlines' planes last winter and off and on before that because of inadequately secured cargo.

James Allen, a spokesman for the Redwood City-based carrier, said that to his knowledge, the company had not experienced any particular problems with its straps or other cargo-stabilizing equipment. He said he was unaware of any pilot complaints about the issue, or of any FAA investigation addressing it last year.

He added, however, that "it wouldn't be out of the ordinary" for the FAA to inspect the straps and locks and recommend replacements.

"We move a lot of freight," Allen said. "There are a lot of containers, a lot of straps. These things are constantly evaluated."

The former Emery pilot, Steven Weinstein, said that the carrier had repeated problems with the straps and locks that keep cargo from shifting.

Weinstein, who flew for the company for two years before leaving nine months ago to take a job as a sales manager for a high-tech company in Silicon Valley, said the FAA has grounded Emery flights on numerous occasions because of problems with the cargo tie-down equipment.

"Emery knew they were having trouble with cargo shifts," said Weinstein, who continues to fly with the U.S. Air Force Reserve. "I, personally, was on over a dozen flights where the FAA came out, inspected airplanes and made us replace the cargo straps because they were unsafe."

On other occasions, Weinstein said, flights were grounded by the FAA until Emery replaced severely frayed netting that covers cargo and helps hold it in place.

"Emery knew about all this, and they never had a decisive maintenance program to come after this problem and fix it," Weinstein said. "They took an ad hoc approach. . . . They're a cargo airline; that's inexcusable."

Weinstein said cargo is loaded onto planes on pallets with rollers on the bottom for easy movement during packing. There are multiple elements to the system that holds most cargo in place. These include the netting that covers the load and locks on the floor that secure the pallets in place with nylon straps.

On any flight, the pilot in command is ultimately responsible for ascertaining that the plane is airworthy. In the case of Flight 17, that included ensuring that the cargo was secured properly.

Flight 17 took off from Mather at 7:52 p.m. Wednesday and headed east for Dayton, Ohio, with a 62,000-pound load that included transmission fluid, clothing and a small packet of detonators like those used to activate automobile air bags. The plane can carry about 90,000 pounds of freight.

Shortly after liftoff, one of the pilots told air traffic controllers that he was having trouble controlling the DC-8 because of "unsettled cargo."

Weinstein said if the cargo had been loaded too far back in the plane, or shifted there as the jetliner climbed out after takeoff, the DC-8 could have stalled--losing the lift that holds it up in the air.

"The plane becomes tail-heavy and starts to sink," he said. "And it can't recover."

The jetliner was attempting to return to Mather for an emergency landing when it slammed belly first into a junked-auto auction yard and burst into flames. Fire quickly engulfed scores of cars parked in the salvage yard, creating a dramatic scene a few blocks from a busy thoroughfare that had been crowded with commuters only a few hours earlier.

Killed in the crash were the plane's captain, Kevin Stables, 43, of Berlin, N.Y.; co-pilot George Land, 35, of Placerville, Calif., and flight engineer Russell Hicks, 38, of Sparks, Nev. Stables had been with the airline five years, Land for three and Hicks for one.

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