A Henson Airlines commuter plane with 14 persons aboard crashed and burned yesterday morning in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains near Harrisonburg during a flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Rescue workers who were lowered from a helicopter onto the rugged mountaintop east of Grottoes, where the twin-engine plane crashed, said they found no survivors.
Wreckage of the plane, which was headed for a small commercial airport in the Shenandoah Valley, was spotted about 6:30 p.m. by a Civil Air Patrol search plane. Officials said the site could not be reached on foot before today.
At the time the plane was scheduled to arrive at the airport, the peaks of some of the surrounding mountains were enveloped in fog, and officials said an electronic beam at the field that should have guided the plane to a landing was malfunctioning.
The plane, carrying two crew members and 12 passengers, disappeared from the radar screen of an air traffic controller at the Federal Aviation Administration's Leesburg air traffic control center at 10:20 a.m., about 15 minutes after it was due at the Shenandoah Valley Airport at Weyers Cave, officials said.
The accident comes at a time of mounting concern in the government and on Capitol Hill about aircraft safety. There have been more than 1,430 fatalities in crashes worldwide this year, the worst in aviation history, including at least 11 serious accidents involving U.S. commercial airliners.
The plane's captain was identified as Martin E. Burns, and the first officer as Zilda Spadaro Wolan. Airline officials said they had not yet notified the relatives of the passengers who were aboard the plane, Flight 1517.
The plane, a propeller-driven Beech 99, took off from BWI at 9:05 a.m.
At 10:05 a.m., the two pilots radioed a standard message to Henson employes at the Weyers Cave airport to report the plane would be landing in a few minutes, and stating the number of passengers aboard and the amount of fuel left.
"Everything was absolutely routine," said Michael Chumbley, Henson's station manager at the airport.
At 10:23 a.m., Henson representatives at the airport were called by controllers from Leesburg and told that the plane had disappeared from a controller's screen minutes before. Officials said it is routine for controllers to lose contact with a plane briefly when it dips below the Blue Ridge in that region, but yesterday when the plane did not reappear, FAA officials made the call.
An air traffic controller in Leesburg had given the Henson flight clearance to land at the airport a few minutes before it disappeared from the radar screen, said Fred Farrar, an FAA spokesman. It was instructed to land on the airport's only 6,000-foot runway headed northeast, requiring the plane to circle the area before touching down, he said.
David Carter, a Civil Air Patrol lieutenant colonel, said last night that the airport's localizer beam, a device used to help guide planes in landing, was malfunctioning at the time of the crash. Carter declined to say whether he believes that contributed to the accident.
The plane was at an altitude of about 2,700 feet and about 11 miles southwest of the airport when it disappeared from the controller's radar screen, Carter said. The Weyers Cave airport does not have a control tower.
The plane was flying under so-called instrument flight rules, which means that the pilot was heading for the airport by using the localizer beam, installed near the runway. A faulty localizer and imperfect visibility because of the weather could have contributed to the crash, some aviation experts said.
The skies were overcast and slightly foggy yesterday, with a cloud cover of 1,000 feet and visibility of two miles, but most aviation experts said that should not have been a problem if the localizer beam were working.
Under FAA rules, planes are allowed to land at Shenandoah if, while on the localizer's correct glide path, the pilot can see the airport from one-half mile out, said Cliff Burnette, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Aviation. If not, the pilot aborts the landing and turns around, sometimes to try again, he said.
Carter said that the Henson flight descended for landing, then aborted it and turned around, but he added he does not know why. To make the turn to try again, the plane could have had to go over some nearby mountains, he said.
The Henson pilot yesterday radioed either the FAA controller or the airport that the localizer was not functioning, officials said.
Chumbley said the plane crashed atop a steep, heavily wooded mountain, between Grottoes on the west and the Skyline Drive to the east.
After it was spotted by the Civil Air Patrol search plane, he said, two Marine Corps helicopters, which had been participating in the search, went to the site, which is east of the airport.
Two physicians were lowered from one of the helicopters. There was evidence of heavy fire damage, but no sign of life, Chumbley said.
Because of darkness, bodies of the victims were not removed. Chumbley estimated that the site is a half-day's hike from the nearest road.
A team from the National Transportation Safety Board is expected to join the investigation, authorities said.
Burns, the plane's captain, joined Henson July 30, 1984, and had more than 3,400 flight hours, Chumbley said. He said Wolan, the first officer, joined two months ago and had more than 3,300 flight hours.
Their ages and addresses were not released.
Henson officials said the airline, a subsidiary of Piedmont Airlines, has an excellent safety record. The only previous mishap involving Henson at Weyers Cave occurred last year, when a Henson plane's landing gear failed to open and the craft "belly-flopped" on landing, a Henson spokesman said. There were no injuries.
"The airport has very good approaches at both ends," said Burnette. "There should not have been any obstructions."
Burnette said the nearest high mountain -- 3,400 feet -- is 10 miles east of the airport.
No family members of any passengers were waiting at the airport to pick them up, only business associates, airline officials said