WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The crew of a doomed Air Midwest flight faced a crisis immediately after takeoff from North Carolina in January, struggling to push down the nose of the overweight plane during a slow steep climb, transcripts of cockpit recordings showed on Tuesday.
"Gear up," Capt. Katie Leslie said as Flight 5481, a Beech 1900 turboprop operating as a US Airways commuter, lifted off on a short, routine flight from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport to Greenville, South Carolina.
"Oh, help me," Leslie called out to her first officer just seconds after the plane left the runway seven seconds later.
"Push down," the first officer said, referring to the control yoke that moves the flight controls.
"Push the nose down!" Leslie yelled seconds before a stall warning sounded about 18 seconds after takeoff.
"We have an emergency for Air Midwest fifty-four-eighty-one," Leslie called out to air controllers.
The plane reached 1,100 feet before stalling and falling nose-down. It struck a hangar before slamming into the ground and exploding. All 19 passengers and two crew were killed.
The transcripts were released at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the Jan. 8 crash where investigators intensified their focus on maintenance and the passenger and bag load. Evidence at the hearing showed for the first time the plane was overweight and its load slightly tail heavy.
But transcripts showed Leslie was mindful of the gathering load of 19 passengers and 31 bags, and investigators said she properly used the formula accepted by the industry at the time -- since changed -- for estimating weight. Her figures showed the plane was barely under its maximum takeoff weight.
CREW JOKED ABOUT WEIGHT
In fact, the crew joked about weight when they noticed a worker preparing the plane for takeoff. "He's probably looking at our ... tail like (it's) 'bout ready to hit the ground right now, with all the bags back there," the first officer said.
But an internal safety board document showed a post-crash calculation of the exact weight of the passengers and bags showed the plane weighed 17,400 pounds, nearly 300 pounds above its maximum takeoff weight.
Nevertheless, a senior safety board official said the weight problem alone should not have caused the crash.
This heightened interest on the potentially troublesome combination of weight and maintenance that was completed on the Beech 1900 the day before the crash.
Mechanics subcontracted for Air Midwest work by Raytheon Aerospace LLC had adjusted the tension of the cable system that moves elevator panels on the tail. Those components control aircraft pitch.
Lorenda Ward, the chief investigator, said a post-crash examination showed the cable system was out of alignment.
Ward said further analysis showed the elevator system did not have its full downward range. Questions were also raised about the experience of the maintenance crew and whether proper procedures were followed.
George States, a Raytheon inspector, defended the work of the mechanic who performed the job as a training assignment. States said he checked the work and noted no problems.
The ill-fated flight was the ninth since the maintenance check, but it was the heaviest and the first since the work was performed in which the passenger and bag load affected the rear center of gravity, Ward testified.