For years the Federal Aviation Administration denied a manufacturer's request to boost pilot training for a popular turboprop involved in multiple deadly cargo crashes.
Now, nearly 15 years after first being pressed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America to mandate more training for pilots flying the company's MU-2, the FAA said it will do just that.
The events leading to that conclusion raise serious questions about why the FAA took so long to suggest safety reforms, and whether pilots are solely at fault in crashes involving that model.
Efforts to increase safety on the MU-2 began in 1991 when Mitsubishi's Ralph Sorrells wrote the FAA asking that pilots pass specific tests before flying. But within three months the FAA replied: "it would be inappropriate for the FAA to establish a pilot type rating for the MU-2 aircraft."
Over the next decade, MU-2s would go down in a spate of crashes that alarmed safety advocates. With questions persisting, Mitsubishi turned again to the FAA in 2003.
"... Some pilots, qualified in less-complex multiengine aircraft, may not have received adequate training necessary to safely operate the MU-2B aircraft in certain flight conditions," Sorrells wrote. "Frequent training is essential for the safe operation."
Again, the FAA said no. It "was unable to establish that the fatal accidents involving MU-2s are extraordinary when compared to other light single and twin turboprop airplanes. Therefore ... we will not be able to mandate additional pilot training," Robert A. Wright, a FAA manager, wrote in March 2004.
Ten days later, in the first of a string of deadly cargo accidents, an MU-2 crashed in Massachusetts, killing Brian Templeton, 33, of Royal Air Freight. He was an "excellent pilot," said Kurt Kostich, Royal Air's director of operations, with 6,500 flight hours -- including 2,000 in the MU-2 alone.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the plane crashed "for undetermined reasons," but a recent wrongful-death suit alleges the plane was defective.
In May 2004, Thomas Lennon's MU-2 crashed near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, killing him. The safety board cited the pilot.
Two MU-2s soon crashed in Colorado, killing three, and both involving Flight Line Inc.
The December 2004 crash killed pilot Paul Krysiak, 28, and James Presba, 25. In May, the NTSB blamed the pilot's "failure to maintain minimum controllable airspeed," but victim families believe the plane is at fault.
"The obvious and well-documented technical problems with the design of the aircraft and repeated failures of one or more of its engines ... simply have nothing to do with pilot training," parents Jim and Linda Presba wrote members of Congress this Feb. 9.
In August 2005 came another fatal crash involving Flight Line, a division of American Check Transport, a 24-hour-a-day cargo company serving the banking industry.
In September 2005, a McNeely Charter Service plane crashed into a 62,000-pound piece of earth-moving equipment in an Arkansas construction site, killing the pilot.
| 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 |