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Plane wreck probe focuses on weather

A central focus of a federal investigation into why a plane skidded off a runway at La Guardia Airport in a blinding snowstorm will be whether winter-weather procedures at the airport had been followed.

Susan Coughlin, vice chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a news conference Thursday that the plane, a Continental Airlines jet that was carrying 115 passengers and crew members, had reached the outer limit for the time before its wings should have been de-iced a second time.

Asked whether the Continental plane should have been allowed to fly at all, Coughlin said, "We're looking at the decisions to keep the runway open, what was done to clear the runway, the de-icing procedures and we're looking at Continental's procedures in winter operations."

Coughlin said investigators also were reviewing another pilot's warning to the control tower just before the accident that the runway was very slippery.

The accident was the third at La Guardia in less than five years involving an airliner taking off and the second in two years on a snowy night on the same runway, No. 13.

La Guardia's short runways have put the airport on pilots' short list of fields they would like to avoid. Red tape has stalled a five-year effort by the airport to add 460 feet of overrun to its main east-west runway, where the latest accident occurred.

Thirty-five of the people on the Denver-bound MD-80 were injured when the pilot aborted the takeoff. The jet skidded beyond the end of the runway and rode up onto the 12-foot earthen dike that acts as a barrier to the waters of Flushing Bay.

Continental said its pilot braked when he realized he could not reach takeoff speed of 140 knots or about 161 miles an hour. The plane used up all 100 feet of overrun space.

In the earlier takeoff accidents, two passengers died in September 1989 when the pilot couldn't stop a USAir jet from plunging into the bay, and 27 people were killed in March 1992 when wing ice sent another USAir plane crashing off the runway to burst into flames.