The National Transportation Safety Board yesterday strongly criticized the judgment and qualifications of the pilots in the Aug. 2 plane crash that killed Virginia Republican Senate candidate Richard D. Obenshain.
The pilots, Richard F. Neel, 42, of Alexandria, who owned the Piper Seneca, and Ronald Allen Edelen of Camp Springs in Prince George's County, an instructor pilot, died with Obenshain in the crash.
In official findings released yesterday, the NTSB said the pilots made two visual approaches for an attempted landing at Chesterfield County Airport near Richmond, although the weather was foggy and the aircraft was equipped for an instrument landing. On the second visual approach the plane struck trees 2,200 feet short of the runway and crashed.
The crash cut short the political career of Obenshain, who had devoted his recent years to building the strength of the Virginia Republican party. Obenshain's death came as he was reaching for his peak political accomplishment -- the Senate seat eventually won by his successor, Republican John W. Warner.
The crash report said that Neel's medical certificate had expired three months before the crash, and that he had failed to maintain adequate flying hours in the plane to be qualified under Federal Aviation Administration rules.
It also noted that Edelen, who was identified by Neel as the instructor pilot for the flight, was not qualified to give multiengine instrument instruction, although he was qualified to be chief pilot.
Edelen filed the flight plan as pilot in command, but the board's investigation was unable to determine which pilot was actually flying the plane at the time of the crash. Edelen had had less than two hours' experience in that type of aircraft, the report said.
The report concluded that the weather, as well as the "disregard of good operating practice" and "improper inflight decisions or planning," were contributing factors in the crash.
The report said that on a leg of the trip from Washington to Winchester, the plane missed two approaches before landing, and that Neel told Obenshain that they had become lost enroute.
The plane was returning Obenshain from Winchester to his Richmond home when the crash occurred.
Neel had donated his time and the use of the plane to Obenshain's campaign. The crash triggered a number of accounts of near disasters for candidates, who find it necessary to fly to reach the distant portions of Virginia. Much of their air time is donated by campaign supporters such as Neel.