Pilots in Mo. Jet Crash Wanted to Have Fun

Stories like this one make me a little nervous. I wonder from time to time who is flying the plane because you place an awful lot of trust in them.

WASHINGTON – Two pilots, in a jovial mood as they flew an empty commuter jet, wanted to “have a little fun” by taking the plane to an unusually high altitude last October, only to realize as the engines failed that they were not going to make it, according to transcripts released Monday.

The plane, which the two were ferrying from Little Rock, Ark. to Minneapolis, crashed and both Capt. Jesse Rhodes and First Officer Peter Cesarz perished.

The cockpit voice recording, released by the NTSB at the start of a three-day hearing into the Oct. 14, 2004 accident, revealed how the pilots cracked jokes and decided to “have a little fun” and fly to 41,000 feet — the maximum altitude for their plane. Most commuter jets fly at lower altitudes.

“Man, we can do it, 41-it,” said Cesarz at 9:48 p.m. A minute later, Rhodes said, “40 thousand, baby.”

Two minutes later, “There’s 41-0, my man,” Cesarz said. “Made it, man.”

At 9:52 p.m., one of the pilots popped a can of Pepsi and they joked about drinking beer. A minute later, Cesarz said, “This is the greatest thing, no way.”

But at 10:03 p.m., the pilots reported their engine had failed. Five minutes later, they said both engines had failed and they wanted a direct route to any airport.

The transcript recounts their increasingly desperate efforts to restart the engines and regain altitude. They tried to land at the Jefferson City, Mo., airport but by 10:14 p.m., it was obvious they wouldn’t reach it.

“We’re not going to make it, man. We’re not going to make it,” Cesarz said. The plane crashed in a residential neighborhood of Jefferson City. No one was injured on the ground.

And then when I read this it just made me shake my head.

According to FAAtranscripts of air-to-ground conversations, an air traffic controller in Kansas City told the two pilots it was rare to see the plane flying that high.

“Yeah, we’re actually … we don’t have any passengers on board, so we decided to have a little fun and come up here,” one of the pilots said. The transcripts don’t identify whether Jesse Rhodes or Cesarz made the statement.

First one, then the other engine shut down. The last contact that controllers had with the crew was at 9,000 feet, when the pilot reported an airport beacon in sight.

At the hearing, NTSB investigators plan to delve into the plane’s flight limits and the proper recovery techniques when engines fail. They also want to know if the pilots knew those procedures and to learn the engine’s performance characteristics at high altitudes.

On June 2, the FAA issued a special bulletin clarifying what steps pilots need to take to restart an engine when there’s a dual engine failure, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said the issue may be reckless pilots rather than inadequate training or improper recovery procedures.

“This is more a story of pilots having time on their hands and playing with things in the cockpit that they shouldn’t,” he said.

Flying, he said, is as boring as truck driving most of the time. “This was boredom and experimentation, these guys experimenting with things they had no business doing,” Stempler said.”

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