Carrier with history of trouble continues to fly -- and crash

An Ohio company with a history of maintenance failings and human casualties is a case study in how even the most troubled operators remain in business in the rugged world of air cargo.

Even as the Federal Aviation Administration issued a series of fines, warnings and letters to Grand Aire Express, the company and its affiliated operator, TriCoastal Air Inc., continued to fly.

On Feb. 8, in the company's latest tragedy, pilot Abdulgader Zbedah, 42, issued a plea for help in the skies of Tennessee. "Mayday," he transmitted. "Mayday, mayday, mayday, mayday, mayday."

Then contact was lost, and the Swearingen SA-226-TC plane hurtled toward a plot of land with such ferocity it sounded like a "racing motorcycle," witnesses said. Zbedah was killed.

His company, TriCoastal, is a sister firm of Grand Aire, sharing a similar ownership and business address, and combined they have a record of seven deaths in four crashes since 2002. Among those killed: the company founder.

The FAA is cautious before trying to ground companies, "because we almost certainly will be forced to defend our action in court," the agency said in a written reply to Miami Herald questions.

But FAA records reveal nearly three dozen accidents or incidents involving company planes since the late 1980s. Even beyond its death count, the company suffered multiple mishaps, records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show.

In 1989, a faulty transponder prompted a pilot to fly through the Cleveland control area without clearance. In 1993, a Grand Aire plane's nose gear collapsed. In 1995, five minutes after takeoff, a pilot noticed "what appeared to be oil spraying from the right engine" and had to abort the flight. In 1997, a Grand Aire plane destined to Louisville had to abort flight when the right engine quit in the sky. In 2000, an emergency exit window "separated from the airplane" in flight, but the crew managed to land safely.

In 2000, the FAA sought $290,000 in fines, saying Grand Aire operated a plane for 20 days without repairing a known problem and performed maintenance without reference to required manuals.

In 2001, the U.S. government sued Grand Aire Express in federal court in Ohio to collect the $290,000. Grand Aire initially disputed it, but the case was settled in 2002 with an order that the company pay $150,000.

The crackdowns, fines and crashes continued:

. On July 18, 2002, in Indiana, pilot Mukesh K. Gupta, 25, died as he transported parts for Grand Aire at 3:45 a.m. during thick fog.

| Reporting by Ronnie Greene | Photography by Candace Barbot | Audio Editing by Rhonda Victor Sibilia | Online Production by Stephanie Rosenblatt | (c) Miami Herald July 9, 2006 |