By Bob Mercer, American News Correspondent
3:16 PM EDT, April 14, 2013
CORRECTION: David Birkeland was president and CEO of First Bank of South Dakota. The bank name was wrong in the first posting of this story. It has been corrected below.
Imagine that a government agency discovers a dangerous situation, tells another government agency about it, and the second agency decides not to tell the people who are potentially in danger.
Then eight people die because of the very situation that officials in both agencies knew to be dangerous.
In a nutshell, that is the story of the April 19, 1993, plane crash near Dubuque, Iowa.
A cracked propeller hub on the left engine threw a blade and punctured the fuselage of that Mitsubishi MU-2B-60.
It was about 3:40 in the afternoon. The plane, owned by the state government of South Dakota, had just crossed the Mississippi River near Clinton, Iowa. It was returning to Pierre from Cincinnati, Ohio.
The state pilots at the controls were Ron Becker and David Hansen.
Four of their passengers were Gov. George S. Mickelson, Angus Anson of Northern States Power, First Bank of South Dakota president and CEO David Birkeland and Sioux Falls Development Foundation director Roger Hainje.
Also aboard were two top members of Mickelson’s government: economic development commissioner Roland Dolly; and energy policy director Ron Reed, who had come from Brookings with Mickelson to be his first commissioner of economic development.
When that left engine went down, the pilots sent a “Mayday.” They couldn’t have prepared for such an emergency.
They could have known they were at a specific risk, if they had been told. And if they had been told, they could have taken steps to address that specific risk.
But they weren’t told what some officials in the federal government knew.
Another Mitsubishi MU-2B, flying as a cargo plane, lost a prop blade in 1991 near Utica, New York.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the Utica incident. On Aug. 13, 1992, the NTSB formally recommended that inspections be conducted on prop hubs on MU-2B-60 planes.
The transportation safety board, however, didn’t have the power to order the inspections. That authority rested with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Months passed. Nothing happened.
Finally on Jan. 4, 1993, the FAA’s then-administrator, Thomas Richards, responded to the safety board recommendation. Special inspections weren’t necessary, he told the safety board.
The safety board's then-chairman, Carl Vogt, didn’t accept that answer. He repeated the recommendation for inspections in letters to the FAA again on Jan. 6, 1993, and on March 4, 1993.
That last letter was just six weeks before the South Dakota MU-2B-60 was flying back from a meeting in Cincinnati.
It should be noted that the National Transportation Safety Board gave its recommendation the middle rating in a range of three. The NTSB didn’t rate it as urgent but instead a priority.
At the time, the FAA often didn’t listen to the National Transportation Safety Board.
In the 25 years between the safety board's creation by Congress and the South Dakota plane’s crash, the National Transportation Safety Board made 2,845 safety recommendations. The FAA agreed on only 82.5 percent of them.
Ignoring the MU-2B-60 recommendation was senseless, deadly and truly tragic. The pilots allowed to handle the planes were professionals in the highest sense.
Not telling them to have the prop hubs checked for cracks was criminal. Their government knowingly let them put their lives and their passengers’ lives at risk.
The FAA decided, nine days after the South Dakota plane crashed and burned and killed all eight men aboard, that inspections should be done.
That directive covered 136 of the MU-2B-60 planes in service. Those inspections detected another cracked hub. The FAA then expanded the inspections to cover 118 other MU-2B aircraft.
In the 20 years since the crash, people who knew Ron Becker and David Hansen have told me the two pilots never would have flown the state plane in its condition at that time, if they had known about the risk of a cracked hub.
They had another obstacle on that fatal day.
When the “Mayday” call went out, with a request for the location of the nearest airport, a Chicago air traffic controller responded.
“Dubuque airport is off to your two o’clock and 25 miles. You can land there,” the controller said.
Dubuque was actually 36 miles. Clinton was 12 miles. Moline was 36 miles.
The dialogue suggests that one or both pilots saw the Clinton strip. One of the crew replied to the Chicago controller.
“Ah, that’s Dubuque off ah to our left and 25?”
The controller responded, “Affirmative, that’s Dubuque airport.”
Dubuque was to the right and north. Clinton was to the left and south.
That piece of the conversation took place about 3:41 p.m. Just four minutes earlier, the state plane had been cruising west at an altitude of about 24,000 feet.
At 3:44 p.m. the crew turned the plane north toward Dubuque. They now were down to 6,000 feet.
At 3:47 the crew asked the controller to have an ambulance standing by at Dubuque. A minute later the controller was told for the first time that the two-engine plane was down to one engine.
At 3:50, with the plane down to 1,900 feet, the Dubuque controller took over and told the crew they were about 10 miles southeast of the Dubuque airport.
A minute later came the last contact between the Dubuque controller and the crew. The Dubuque controller gave them the frequency for the Dubuque tower. “Thanks,” one of the crew responded.
The plane came down through the low clouds. It hit a farm silo near Zwingle, Iowa, about eight miles short of the airport.
An expert concluded the plane couldn’t be controlled at that point because it was so low and didn’t have sufficient power.
Five years after the crash, the federal government and propeller manufacturer Hartzell wanted the state of South Dakota to contribute to financial settlements reached with the victims’ families.
The trial didn’t proceed. A deposition of a Hartzell official gave his explanation why the company didn’t issue warnings after Utica.
“It was reasonable to not send out notification,” he said.
Explain that to the families.