The Federal Aviation Administration said yesterday that it is performing an extraordinary safety inspection of Arrow Air, the charter carrier whose plane crashed on takeoff in Gander, Newfoundland, last Thursday and killed all 256 people on board, including 248 Army soldiers.
"Over the next two to three weeks, we will be stepping up our en route surveillance, looking at all their planes and flying with all of their flight crews. That is obviously a fairly substantial effort," said Jonathan Howe, administrator of the FAA's southern region, which holds the Miami-based airline's operating license.
The investigation is more intensive than any of the recent FAA special probes of some major airlines.
Arrow operates a regular schedule between Puerto Rico and several mainland U.S. cities, and also flies a heavy military charter schedule for the Air Force. Since Arrow is a civilian airline, it is subject to FAA rules and regulations.
Other FAA officials said the inspection schedule calls for inspectors on 33 flights between now and Jan. 6, with intensive examination of maintenance logs and operating procedures.
Arrow was the subject of a special safety investigation by the FAA in 1984 and paid $34,000 in civil penalties to settle all cases resulting from that inspection. Arrow did not admit any violations.
After the Gander accident, an earlier incident involving Arrow was reported by The Grand Rapids Press.
The newspaper said that, on Nov. 15, the same Arrow DC8 was carrying 99 Marine reservists from Grand Rapids to Camp Lejeune, N.C. The plane's engines started, its nose rose quickly, then the plane settled back onto the runway as the tail section struck the ground, the paper reported.
"There was a big bump, a big jolt," the reservists' commander was quoted as saying. The newspaper said the plane's throttles were retarded, the troops were moved from the rear of the aircraft to the front, and it took off without incident.
Since that report, the FAA has investigated and confirmed the incident. The plane's load was so unbalanced to the rear, officials said, that when the throttles were advanced, the plane settled back on its tail, never starting down the runway.
A "tail strike" is classified as an incident that must be reported, but FAA sources said neither FAA nor airline officials were told. An FAA investigation is continuing.
There is no indication the tail hitting the ground had anything to do with the Gander accident, where attention is focusing on the possible accidental deployment of a jet engine's thrust reverser, among other factors.
Meanwhile, in Gander, cold weather and blowing snow hampered the investigation of the crash by the Canadian Aviation Safety Board. Investigators expressed disappointment that no data appears to be available from the cockpit voice recorder.