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NTSB Says Poor Maintenance, Including Extremely Under-Inflated Tires, Caused 2008 Plane Crash That Killed Four And Critically Injured 2 In South Carolina

On April 6, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its findings in the investigation into the fatal, September 19, 2008 plane crash of a chartered, Bombardier Learjet at South Carolina's Columbia Metropolitan Airport. The jet, carrying 6 people on board, was operated by Global Exec Aviation and was destined for Van Nuys, California, when it overran the runway, crashing through a perimeter fence and crossing a roadway before coming to a berm and bursting into flames. The captain, first officer and two passengers died in the crash; the two survivors, Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker and celebrity DJ Adam "DJ AM" Goldstein escaped the fiery crash but were critically wounded.

The NTSB investigation revealed that Global Exec Aviation failed to perform adequate maintenance on the Learjet, and that prior to and including the date of the accident, the airplane was operated while the main landing gear tires were severely underinflated. All four of the airplane's main landing gear tires failed during the takeoff, the first tire failing 1.5 seconds after the airplane had passed the maximum speed at which a takeoff can be safely aborted. The NTSB found that the first officer indicated to the captain that the takeoff should continue, but the captain chose to reject takeoff by deploying the airplane's thrust reversers at near-takeoff speed, something pilots are trained to avoid unless the pilot concludes the airplane is unable to fly. According to the NTSB investigation, there was no evidence that the airplane was unable to become airborne.

During the investigation, the Board determined that the tire failure damaged a sensor which caused the jet's thrust reversers to return to the stowed position, indicating that perhaps the airplane's control system believed the plane to be airborne, when thrust reversers are no longer needed. This malfunction spelled disaster, because while the pilot was attempting to slow the airplane, the thrust reversers were not activated, so the jet was actually careening forward at the speed required for takeoff, greatly increasing the severity of the accident.

In July, 2009, the NTSB recommended to Learjet that it change the design of some of its thrust reversers so that they could remain controllable in emergency situations, even if there were malfunctions with sensors or other electronic equipment. Further, the Board suggested that Learjet pilots receive intensive training into the safe use and potential problems of an aircraft's thrust reversers

Ironically, the cockpit voice recorder, which captured the conversation between the captain and the first officer in the moments before the crash, revealed that immediately prior to the attempted takeoff, both pilots were discussing the length of the runway and the circumstances that would result in an aborted takeoff. "[W]e've got plenty of runway," one of the pilots can be heard saying. Four minutes later, after nearly reaching the speed needed for takeoff and then attempting to reject the takeoff, it became apparent to the crew that the equipment had malfunctioned. "[T]hey're shut off they're shut off" exclaims one of the pilots, followed by the other pilot responding "how many?" just seconds before the crash.

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