Katz's jet reached takeoff speed, but failed to leave ground

Luke Schiada and Adam Huray document the recovered recorders, which may explain what went wrong.
Luke Schiada and Adam Huray document the recovered recorders, which may explain what went wrong. (NTSB)
Posted: June 05, 2014

BEDFORD, Mass. - Black box recorders show that the doomed jet that carried Lewis Katz and six others reached takeoff speed but never left the ground, federal investigators said Tuesday.

The pilots applied the brakes and thrust reversers, apparently attempting to slow the plane before it overran the runway, crashed, and burned.

The National Transportation Safety Board announced that cockpit voice and flight data recordings could show what went wrong with Saturday's flight, and emphasized that its findings were preliminary.

The recorders captured the Gulfstream IV reaching a maximum speed of 190 m.p.h. and never lifting off the runway, the agency's lead investigator said at a briefing at Hanscom Field, outside Boston.

Analysts in the NTSB's Washington labs will focus on a 49-second voice recording that began when the craft started its takeoff. An additional 41 hours of flight data have been preserved.

At 9:40 p.m. Saturday, the plane was headed to Atlantic City International Airport following a day during which Katz and three friends attended a fund-raising event in Concord at the home of the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Katz, 72, made his fortune investing in parking lots, billboards, and the New York Yankees' cable network. In 2012 he became a co-owner of the company that owns The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com. Four days before the crash, Katz and H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest outbid three other partners, with $88 million, to gain sole control of the media company.

Witnesses and officials have reported that the plane rolled off the runway and onto the grass before striking an antenna and a fence, coming to rest in a gully as it burst into flames.

In 911 calls released Monday, neighbors described a loud explosion and towering column of smoke. One caller Saturday night said it looked like "an atomic bomb went off" and described "a mushroom cloud" of smoke and fire.

"This was a good airplane with a professional crew, in good weather, at an airport with a long runway," said R. John Hansman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics professor.

Hansman and two other aviation experts said they were puzzled why the crew aborted takeoff given the jet's speed and its position down the runway. Their choice, he said, "was not the normal procedure."

But if a pilot encounters, for instance, a failed brake, or malfunctioning flight controls, Hansman said, "you could run into a situation where you would abort, but you would not have enough runway distance to stop - leading to a situation, perhaps, like here, where you would go off the runway. ..."

He said the investigation might reveal there was a "problem so bad that the crew decided that going off the runway was preferable."

Among Katz's traveling companions was Anne B. Leeds, 74, a retired schoolteacher and neighbor of Katz's in Longport, N.J. Katz had invited Leeds, a mother and grandmother, at the last minute when the two met on the beach Saturday.

Also on the plane was Marcella M. Dalsey, 59, executive director of the Drew A. Katz Foundation - named after Katz's son - and president of the KATZ Academy Charter School, which she cofounded with Lewis Katz in 2012. Dalsey was the mother of four grown children.

Susan K. Asbell, 68, of Cherry Hill, was Katz's third guest. A mother of two and wife of former Camden County Prosecutor Samuel Asbell, she was a member of the planning committee of the Boys and Girls Club of Camden County.

Massachusetts authorities have identified the crew as pilot James McDowell, 51, of Georgetown, Del., copilot Bauke De Vries, 45, of Marlton, and flight attendant Teresa Ann Benhoff, 48, of Easton, Md.

Lead NTSB investigator Luke Schiada noted that in February, the plane's captain had reported having logged 18,500 hours of flight experience, and in April, the aircraft's first officer had listed 11,200 hours.

The plane itself had flown for 4,950 hours over its 14-year life. It had been owned since 2007 by SK Travel, a limited-liability company formed in North Carolina. Lewis Katz is listed in online corporate records as one of its two principals, along with Emil W. Solimine of Livingston, N.J. Solimine could not be reached for comment.

Experts said the Gulfstream G-IV's reputation for safety was borne out by accident statistics.

"The Gulfstream is one of the most recognized planes in the world, one of the safest," said Robert Breiling, a compiler of plane accident data whose reports are closely followed by the aircraft and insurance industries.

Over the last five years, Gulfstream G-IV jets have had about one accident for every 600,000 hours flown. In contrast, the industrywide rate for all such business jets is 2.6 accidents per 600,000 hours aloft.

That said, the crash Saturday was the third fatal crash involving the model since 2012. The only fatal crash before that took place in 1996.

That was also the only other time a Gulfstream G-IV crashed during takeoff.

Steve Cass, chief spokesman for Georgia-based Gulfstream, a wholly owned subsidiary of General Dynamics, said the G-IV, sold between 1987 and 2003, was his firm's most successful model. Almost all of the models sold - more than 500 - are still in service.

"It has been extremely safe, extremely reliable," Cass said.

Powered by two Rolls-Royce jet engines, the Gulfstream that crashed Saturday cost about $30 million when first produced in 2000.

Until the crash, Katz's plane - tail number N121JM - had never been involved in an accident, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

Public maintenance records reviewed by The Inquirer show that the Gulfstream, under its two ownership groups, had been routinely updated with new instrumentation and other equipment.


jgrant@phillynews.com

215-854-5506

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Linda Loyd, Tom Torok, Craig R. McCoy, Dylan Purcell, and Mike Placentra.

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