Update: Emery Flt 17, Feb., 2000

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San Francisco Chronicle

Moments before they died in a fiery crash near Sacramento, the pilots of Emery Worldwide Airlines Flight 17 desperately struggled to control the cargo jet as it jerked up and down with a bolt missing from its tail, according to documents released yesterday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Shortly after takeoff on Feb. 16, 2000, Capt. Kevin Stables made his last radio transmission: "Emery 17 extreme CG (center of gravity) problem."

That utterance fueled initial speculation that shifting cargo threw the four-engine DC-8 out of balance, causing it to porpoise and then bellyflop into a wrecked-auto auction yard in Rancho Cordova (Sacramento County) and touch off a widespread fire. All three crew members aboard were killed.


But documents from the NTSB reveal that the focus is now on the plane's elevators, plates in the tail that control up and down movement, and maintenance of those parts by a contractor.

Investigators found that the plane was missing a bolt in the right part of the tail, allowing a part called a "push rod" to separate. As a result, the crew may not have known the true position of the elevators, records show.

The safety board, while raising questions as to whether the elevator and push rod assemblies were correctly installed, did not specify a cause of the crash, which remains under investigation.

Killed were pilot Stables, 43, of Berlin, N.Y.; co-pilot George Land, 35, of Placerville; and flight engineer Russell Hicks, 38, of Sparks, Nev.


The documents were released 10 days after Redwood City-based Emery agreed to ground its fleet of 37 planes for 30 days because of long-standing concerns by the Federal Aviation Administration over safety and maintenance.

The safety board was to have held a hearing this week on the crash, but it was postponed on Aug. 13 when Emery, bowing to FAA pressure, grounded its fleet.

Emery spokeswoman Nancy Colvert declined to comment on the safety board report but said the airline had planned to respond to the findings at the hearing, which she said was the "proper forum" for a response.

"Emery Worldwide Airlines' first priority now is working with the FAA to resolve all outstanding issues so that EWA may resume the flight operations the company suspended," Colvert said.

The plane, built in 1968, was headed from Mather Field in Rancho Cordova to Dayton, Ohio.

A review of the flight data recorder, one of two "black box" recording devices on the plane, found that the elevators were "incorrectly portrayed" in readings throughout the short flight, the safety board said.

The elevator system on the plane was replaced with overhauled parts just three months before the crash by contract mechanics with Tennessee Technical Services in Smyrna, Tenn., records show. The company's maintenance practices are being examined by the safety board.

Elevator parts called dampers were incorrectly reversed when installed by the mechanics, the report said. The problem was later corrected.

The crash and the 30-day grounding come at a trying time for Emery.

In May and June, FAA inspectors found more than 100 maintenance violations, including inadequate repairs and record keeping, unapproved installations, use of non-airworthy aircraft and failure to follow company manuals.

The Air Line Pilots Association complained to the FAA about various problems at Emery as early as 1997, the safety board report said, and the former FAA inspector assigned to the airline, Terje Kristiansen, reported complaints about loading procedures and crew rest times.

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), August 24, 2001

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