A cry as plane plummeted: "Daddy'

Published May 21, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

When Air Midwest Flight 5481 stalled and began to fall toward the Charlotte airport, a voice cried out from the passenger cabin.


A cockpit transcript reveals the drama on Jan. 8 as the pilots lost control of the twin-engine Beech 1900D. The plane crashed into the corner of a US Airways hangar 37 seconds after takeoff, killing both pilots and all 19 passengers.

The transcript, released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board, does not identify the passenger who cried out. But records indicate it probably was 12-year-old Caitlin Albury, who was seated apart from her father, Robin Albury, on the full flight. Caitlin was in the ninth row of the small plane, while her father was in the third row.

The cockpit recording shows Jan. 8 seemed to be a routine day for pilots Katie Leslie and Jonathan Gibbs. They chatted about giving Krispy Kreme doughnuts as a wedding gift and their desire to fly regional jets. But they also spoke about whether their twin-engine propeller plane was overloaded.

Weight may have played a role in the crash. NTSB investigators said the plane was about 300 pounds overweight and was tail-heavy.

Planes can often still fly when they are overweight. But NTSB investigators said a mechanic had improperly adjusted Flight 5481's elevator cables, which apparently restricted the movement of the elevators, the horizontal tail panels that make the plane climb and descend. The pilots were virtually helpless as their crippled plane climbed steeply until it stalled and then crashed.

Before takeoff, they had talked extensively about whether the plane was overloaded.

"Full house back there?" asked Gibbs.

"That's what they told me _ looks like there's 19" passengers, replied Leslie.

They talked about the weight of the fuel and whether the plane would be tail-heavy. Leslie joked that if there was too much weight at the rear, "we'll move our seats forward and put (items) behind our seats."

Gibbs's calculations showed the actual weight was just below the aircraft's limit.

"So we're cool," Leslie said.

As the plane was ready to taxi from the gate, Gibbs joked that a ramp worker would notice the tail was "ready to hit the ground."

The pilots' calculations were based on passenger weight estimates that the Federal Aviation Administration recently determined were too low. An FAA survey found the average passenger weighed 21 pounds more than the old estimate, last revised in 1995. Airlines have been ordered to use the new, higher estimates.

There was no hint of trouble as the pilots taxied. They talked about their desire to fly regional jets _ Gibbs saw one and called it "a sweet piece of equipment" _ or to some day fly international routes. Leslie, who was accustomed to overnights in small U.S. towns, said she would have to cope with dinners in Paris and nights in Cancun.

It's not clear why Caitlin was sitting in the last row while her father and uncle, Nicholas Albury, were six rows ahead.

The family lived in Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas and owned a hardware store. The father and uncle were on the plane because they were attending an outdoor sports convention. A family friend told the Charlotte Observer in January that they brought Caitlin so she could experience snow.

Passengers are rarely heard on crash recordings because cockpit doors are usually closed. But the Beech 1900D, a 19-passenger propeller plane, is so small that it is not required to have the same reinforced doors as big jets. It has a thin sliding door that pilots can leave open.

Flight 5481 had a normal takeoff, but once the plane lifted off the runway, the nose suddenly pitched up.

"Help me," said Leslie.

The pilots tried to regain control by pushing forward on their control columns, but the plane kept climbing.

"Push down," Gibbs said.

The plane stalled. Warnings began to sound in the cockpit.

"Push the nose down," Leslie said.

But as the plane began to fall, the pilots' tone became more desperate.

"Oh my god," said Leslie. She radioed to air traffic controllers that they had an emergency.

Ten seconds before impact, the voice came from the back.