Crash rulings often pin blame on pilot

Shima Funakoshi, left, and mother Yoshiko Funakoshi died in a 2003 crash in Alaska.

In the sky over Idaho in icy weather, the Cessna 208B's wings began to flutter, and pilot Fred Villanueva, a Vietnam War veteran, could not hold them. The wings moved ''side to side," a witness said, and then the nose dropped -- classic signs of icing.

With a giant boom, the Cessna crashed into a plowed field. Villanueva and his Salmon Air co-worker, Raymond Ingram, were killed that morning, Dec. 6, 2004.

Nine months later, when the National Transportation Safety Board assessed blame for the air cargo crash, it cited the pilot for failing to keep control.

The case is not unique: In eight of every 10 fatal U.S. cargo crashes since 2000, the NTSB has blamed the person in the cockpit as the primary reason for the disaster, a Miami Herald investigation found.

The "probable cause'' findings, typically winnowed to a few sentences, are often the final word on why a plane went down.

Yet a Miami Herald review of probable cause reports on every fatal U.S. cargo crash since 2000 shows other contributing factors were ignored or downplayed, raising doubts about whether dozens of the crashes should have been blamed on the pilot.

Consider:

. The plane Villanueva flew, the Cessna 208B, has been involved in 10 fatal U.S. cargo crashes since 2000,more than any other plane, and government files are rife with concern over the aircraft's problems in icing conditions.

The NTSB itself questioned the Cessna 208B's handling in icing, including one detailed report just nine days after the Idaho crash. The concerns became so urgent that the safety board in January pressed the Federal Aviation Administration to ban the planes from flying into "conditions determined to be more than light icing."

Despite these well-documented concerns, not once did the NTSB cite the Cessna as the primary or contributing factor in the crashes.

. Another turboprop, the Mitsubishi MU-2, has been involved in seven fatal cargo crashes in the states this decade, second only to the Cessna 208B. In rapid fire, five have come since March 2004 alone, killing six.

The spate of accidents triggered congressional concern and prompted the FAA recently to issue a report concluding the plane has a high crash rate that warrants enhanced pilot training.

Not once has the NTSB cited the MU-2 as a primary or contributing factor of cargo crashes since 2000.

. Investigators often come to conclusions without crucial evidence: cockpit recorders that capture talk between pilot and copilot, and sophisticated digital flight recorders that monitor all facets of a plane's travels.

| 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 |