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Colorado Crash Similar to 2002 Incident

Investigators Focusing on Failure to De-Ice Wings of Bombardier Challengers

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page A08

Federal investigators probing the cause of the Colorado crash that killed the 14-year-old son of NBC executive Dick Ebersol said it bears a striking resemblance to another crash two years ago that revealed the plane's susceptibility to icing problems.

Two American executives of Agco Corp., an agriculture equipment firm based in Georgia, and their flight crew were killed in February 2002 when their Bombardier Challenger 604 crashed shortly after takeoff in Birmingham, England. As in the Ebersol crash, the pilots did not have the plane de-iced before takeoff, despite the freezing conditions.

Investigators examine wreckage of the Bombardier jet that crashed Sunday. (Nathan Bilow -- AP)

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On Sunday, a Bombardier Challenger 601 carrying Ebersol and two of his sons crashed near the runway while attempting to take off near Telluride, Colo., killing both pilots and seriously injuring a third crew member. Ebersol and another son, Charles, survived the crash and are expected to recover.

"The similarities are quite substantial, and we don't have that very often in our business," said National Transportation Safety Board chairman Ellen Engleman Connors. The design of the wing, she said, makes it "very susceptible to debris or frost or icing, and it is one we will be focusing on of many possibilities."

Engleman Connors said icing on the wings, as well as other factors such as fuel imbalance and maintenance records, will be examined to determine the probable cause of the crash. The plane's cockpit voice recorder was examined yesterday at the agency's headquarters in Washington, and investigators said it captured 31 minutes of the pilot and co-pilot talking before the crash.

Safety experts said the design of the Challenger's wings can cause it to accumulate ice more easily than others because the wings lack moveable flaps on the leading edge that help the plane lift into the air. Such flaps, which are common on commercial airplanes, can help break ice that can form on the leading edge of a wing. The flaps also create a curvature of the wing that helps it gain lift.

"The really sensitive part of the wing is on the top surface near the leading edge," said Charles Eastlake, an aerospace engineering professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "It only takes lumps and bumps [of ice or frost] a few thousandths of an inch thick to disrupt the airflow over the wing . . . that could be dangerous."

The plane in Birmingham took off with frost visible on its wings and banked sharply to the left after becoming airborne. The left wing dragged on the ground before breaking apart. Fuel from the wing tanks fed the flames, which engulfed the plane as it hit the ground.

Canadair, a subsidiary of Bombardier, produced about 600 Challengers, according to the NTSB, and no longer makes the 601 model. The plane, which is typically sold to corporate executives and offers a wider cabin than most corporate jets, has been involved in five fatal accidents over 20 years, a relatively low accident rate, the NTSB said.

Researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

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