Speed, Weather Probed in Wellstone Crash
National Transportation Safety Board investigators Jim Silliman and Scott Warren had a grim task before them on the morning of Oct. 25, 2002, as they investigated the crash site where a plane carrying Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), his wife, daughter and several aides had crashed and burned.
“There was a strong smell of burned jet fuel and a clearly defined area of fuel spill that had subsequently burned and left black charred soil and forest products,” wrote the investigators, who were among the first to arrive on the scene. “One occupant had a metal watch on the left arm that read approximately 10:30 when the face was wiped of soot.”
That disturbing picture painted by their report emerges from the long factual record the NTSB has compiled in its ongoing investigation into the crash of the King Air A100, operated by Minnesota-based Aviation Charter.
In the final days of a busy campaign season, the 58-year-old Senator — who had a life-long fear of flying on small planes — and his traveling companions were on their way to attend a funeral when their lives were suddenly cut short.
Although the NTSB knows a great deal about what took place that day and has completed the major fact-finding phase of its probe, the agency is still months away from issuing a final report pinpointing the probable cause of the fatal accident.
“The investigation is ongoing,” said NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm. “I think they will try to conclude it before the end of the year. … This one may get finished earlier.”
Schlamm said the agency, which has 450 employees and investigates about 1,800 small plane accidents each year, has its hands full.
Documents released by the agency in March showed that the airplane carrying Wellstone was flying dangerously slow in icing conditions on its final approach into Eveleth- Virginia Municipal Airport. Slow air speeds can cause a plane to stall.
According to the NTSB, the minimum safe airspeed when a plane’s flaps are extended 10 degrees, as the flaps on Wellstone’s plane were, is 99 knots, but NTSB aerospace engineers concluded that Wellstone’s plane was traveling at only 76 knots just seconds before it crashed.
Moreover, press reports and the NTSB also raised questions about the qualifications of the pilots operating Wellstone’s flight.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the pilot of Wellstone’s plane, Richard Conry, had a felony fraud conviction in the 1980s and had also exaggerated his flight experience when he applied for his job at Aviation Charter. Conry, the Star Tribune reported, had told the company he had between 400 and 500 hours of flying experience at American Airlines’ regional commuter airline, American Eagle.
As the NTSB continues its grim task, Wellstone’s surviving family and friends are doing their best to carry on the Senator’s legacy.
Wellstone’s sons, David and Mark, have joined with others to form a group called Wellstone Action, a national network aimed at carrying on both Paul and Sheila Wellstone’s work in the areas of social progress and economic justice.
A weekend-long training program called “Camp Wellstone” will kick off this summer to teach participants about the “philosophy, strategies and tactics of winning progressive, grassroots political and electoral action,” according to the group’s Web site.