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Obama campaign plane's emergency is detailed

An inflated evacuation slide had caused control problems on a flight last summer, says an NTSB report. The presidential candidate and his staff were on board.

July 11, 2009|Kristina Sherry

WASHINGTON — Airplane control problems last summer could have led to disaster for then-Sen. Barack Obama and his presidential campaign, according to a report released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

On July 7, 2008, a McDonnell Douglas MD-81 en route to Charlotte, N.C., and carrying Obama and 50 other passengers and crew made an emergency landing in St. Louis. An evacuation slide within the tail cone had inflated shortly after takeoff from Chicago.

Although the NTSB's final report -- and determination of probable cause -- is not expected until later this summer, Friday's report suggested that the inflated slide and a nearby fractured walkway railing may have "impinged" on a set of elevator cables, interfering with the cockpit's ability to control the plane's angle, or pitch.

After liftoff, the captain reported that the airplane's pitch continued to increase without a corresponding flight control input and that the pressure required by the crew to level the airplane was "higher than normal." The airplane's pitch reached 20 to 25 degrees before the captain regained control, according to the report.

According to Boeing, the report stated, typical pitch angles during initial climb are 16 to 20 degrees, with occasional flights reaching 25 degrees.

Rather than continue on toward Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the crew opted to divert the plane to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport after the pilots were unable to correct the pitch control system.

In tapes released by the Federal Aviation Administration about a month after the incident, the captain is heard saying to an air traffic controller: "At this time we'd like to declare this an emergency and also have CFR [emergency equipment] standing by in St. Louis."

The captain added: "Just for informational purposes, we have Sen. Obama on board the aircraft, and his campaign."

As the airplane descended through 15,000 feet, the captain observed that flight control pressures returned to normal.

The plane landed in St. Louis about 9:30 a.m., with no reported injuries.

Neither the flight crew nor an airline mechanic sitting in the rear of the plane recalled hearing the slide inflate after takeoff.

The NTSB report cited only two similar incidents involving tail cone slide inflations -- in 1991 and 2002.

Midwest Airlines, which operated the charter flight, called for a service check of the tail cone evacuation slide area every 99 flight hours; on the last service check June 5, 2008, no anomalies were reported. After the check, the aircraft flew three flight legs with Obama on board.

The July 7, 2008, flight carried two flight crew members, four flight attendants, two airline representatives and 43 passengers -- including Obama, journalists, campaign staff and Secret Service personnel.

An internal investigation of the Secret Service relating to its security sweeps on the aircraft indicated that no personnel or support personnel had interfered with hardware or systems relating to the tail cone evacuation slide.

On the morning of the flight, Obama was to deliver an economic speech in Charlotte. Instead, he delivered the speech by telephone from St. Louis.

After the unscheduled landing he joked to reporters: "Just thought we'd spice things up a bit today."

--

ksherry@tribune.com

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