The flight crew of a Northwest Airlink commuter jet that crashed last fall into a residential area near Jefferson City, Mo., took the plane on a joyride to 41,000 feet and joked about having pushed it to its limits just before its two engines blew out, a transcript of the cockpit voice recorder revealed yesterday.
The crew was flying the plane without passengers to its next day's departure site when it crashed on Oct. 14, 2004. The captain and the first officer died in the crash. No one on the ground was hurt.
The National Transportation Safety Board released the transcript and heard from witnesses yesterday as part of a three-day hearing on the crash. The board has not determined the cause of the crash.
The crew's hijinks began shortly after takeoff from Little Rock, Ark., according to the plane's data recorder. On the ascent, the crew performed an abrupt pitch-up maneuver, pulling 1.8 Gs and activating a system that protects against the engines stalling. The crew members then apparently switched seats and pulled up again, resulting in a load of 2.3 Gs.
Later, Capt. Jesse Rhodes, 31, and co-pilot Richard Peter Cesarz, 23, decided to take the plane up to its maximum altitude of 41,000 feet, which they referred to as 4-1-0.
"There's my four one oh oh my man," said the co-pilot, according to the transcript. "yeah. . . . [sound of laughing] this is [unintelligible] great."
"You'll get the, you'll do the next one to say four one oh," the captain said. "[Unintelligible] Yeah baby."
"[Sound of laughing] Four one oh [expletive] Four one oh."
Minutes later, the air traffic controller questioned why the regional jet was flying so high. "We don't, we don't have any passengers on board so we decided to have a little fun and come on up here," Rhodes said, according to the transcript.
Seconds later, laughter in the cockpit ceased as the crew quickly realized they had a problem. Both engines cut out at the plane's maximum altitude and the men made four desperate attempts to get them restarted. "We don't have any engines," one of them said, but it was unclear from the recording which one said it.
The crew declared an emergency to air traffic control and initially reported only one engine out as they tried to recover. With the plane gliding back to earth, the crew tried to find the nearest airport for a landing. The aircraft crashed two miles short of Jefferson City Memorial Airport in Missouri.
Pinnacle Airlines, which operated the aircraft as Northwest Airlink, the commuter service for Northwest Airlines, said its rules do not permit flight crew members to switch seats while in flight. "We are disappointed [the transcript] revealed that they chose to violate their training and the rules of basic airmanship," Pinnacle said in a written statement. "We are determined that these actions do not recur and have instituted meaningful and pragmatic safeguards as a result."
NTSB board member Deborah A.P. Hersman, who served as chairman of the hearing yesterday, asked Pinnacle whether it was aware of a so-called "4-1-0 club."
"I heard some pilots like to go there who had never been to 4-1-0 before," said Terry Mefford, Pinnacle's chief airline pilot. "I hadn't heard about it until this accident."
Terry McVenes, executive air safety chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association, said the accident raised concerns about the training and experience of pilots at swiftly expanding regional airlines. "These high-growth regional carriers are often getting crews that don't have the depth of experience they'd typically have" at major airlines, McVenes said. He urged more thorough training and safety programs for such carriers.