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Flight problems, not turbulence, found in death of former White House official

The flight was marked by a series of missteps, alerts and system issues before the plane lurched violently in the sky, killing Dana Hyde, the NTSB said.

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The flight that left a former White House official dead earlier this month was marked by multiple missteps, alerts and system issues before the plane lurched violently in the sky, according to a preliminary report Friday from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The Federal Aviation Administration and NTSB initially described the incident as a turbulence event, with the safety board saying it also was investigating a reported issue with a flight control system. According to the new report, pilots said there was no remarkable turbulence during the flight, including around the time the plane lost control.

Instead, the report says, a key probe affixed to the outside of the plane was initially left covered, a takeoff was aborted, and pilots received a string of alerts on the ground and in the air before switching off a key flight control system immediately before the deadly incident.

The plane departed March 3 from New Hampshire, headed for Leesburg Executive Airport in Virginia. It was carrying Dana Hyde, 55, of Cabin John, Md., her husband, Jonathan Chambers, and one of their sons as the family was returning from a trip to visit schools in New England. Hyde worked in the Clinton and Obama White Houses and was counsel on the 9/11 Commission, which investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Investigators said the pilots on the Bombardier Challenger 300 began their takeoff with a critical speed-measurement probe mistakenly still covered. When two airspeed indicators showed different readings, the pilots aborted the takeoff. The second-in-command pilot then walked to the front of the plane, removed the red cover and returned to the cockpit, according to the NTSB.

As the chief pilot restarted the left engine and prepared to take off again, an alerting system noted a “RUDDER LIMITER FAULT,” the NTSB report said. The chief pilot told investigators he tried two tests to clear the message. When that was unsuccessful, the pilots continued with the flight, “given that the message was an advisory, and not a caution or warning,” the report said.

Just how dangerous is turbulence?

During takeoff, the second-in-command noticed that key speed-related parameters were not set, requiring him to call one out from memory, the NTSB said. The plane continued climbing to about 6,000 feet, investigators said, when a barrage of additional alerts emerged.

Among the alerts was one for an autopilot stabilizer trim failure. Trim generally refers to a flight control system that makes it easier for the pilot to maintain the airplane’s flight path. Another caution indicated the autopilot was “HOLDING NOSE DOWN,” according to the NTSB.

The pilots consulted a checklist on how to address the problems, then turned the stabilizer trim switch off. “As soon as the switch position was moved, the airplane abruptly pitched up,” according to the NTSB.

The plane then experienced violent, uncontrolled movements, speeding up and down and putting passengers under the dramatic stress of more than four times the force of gravity, according to the preliminary report.

“Four G’s. That’s four times your body weight. Objects that were 100 pounds were now weighing 400 pounds, and moving in an up or down direction,” said Jeff Guzzetti, a former accident investigator with the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. “That’s a tremendous amount of G force for an airplane to experience.”

According to the NTSB, the head pilot said that when the plane first pitched up, his “left hand was on the flight controls and his right hand was guarding the right side of the flight controls.” The pilot immediately used both hands to regain control of the plane “in what he estimated to be a few seconds after the airplane’s pitch oscillated up and down.”

The NTSB said the pilots were employed by Executive Flight Services, which also managed the aircraft. The pilot in command and second-in-command had each accumulated thousands of hours of flight time overall, with 88 hours and 78 hours, respectively, in the make and model jet in this incident, the NTSB said. Executive Flight Services did not respond to a request for comment. The FAA declined to immediately release records related to the firm.

Chambers said in an email earlier this month to employees and clients of rural broadband consulting firm Conexon, where he is a partner, that “the plane suddenly convulsed in a manner that violently threw the three of us. My wife was badly injured.”

The plane made an emergency landing in Connecticut. Hyde was taken to a hospital but died of her injuries. The aircraft is owned by Conexon, which is based in Kansas City, Mo. The company and Chambers declined to comment on the NTSB’s preliminary findings.

Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, the former chairs of the 9/11 Commission, remembered Hyde — from the earliest days of the investigation until work was completed 20 months later — as “everything anyone would want in a colleague.”

“Her expertise in her field and the diligence with which she pursued her work helped answer many vital questions and greatly enhanced the security of the American people,” they wrote, offering condolences “to her family and all she leaves behind.”

Hyde was born in rural eastern Oregon, according to her husband. She was a senior adviser at the State Department during the Obama administration before becoming an associate director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Hyde had a long-standing focus on international development and poverty issues during her years in Washington.

“Dana was the best person I ever knew. She was a wonderful mother to our boys and she was accomplished professionally,” Chambers wrote to colleagues earlier this month. “She loved and was beloved.”

Shane Harris and Cate Brown contributed to this report.