Did pilot error play role in crash that killed Katz?

Posted: June 15, 2014

IT HAS NOW BEEN two weeks since a bizarre, horrific plane crash claimed the lives of philanthropist Lewis Katz, three of his friends and three crew members.

Their loved ones remain haunted by a single question: How did this happen?

A preliminary report released yesterday by the National Transportation Safety Board suggested that pilot error may have played a role in the crash.

According to the report, the flight-data recorder on Katz's Gulfstream IV showed no evidence that the pilots performed a "flight-control check" before attempting to take off from Hanscom Field, in Bedford, Mass., on May 31.

The problem: The plane's rear tail flaps, known as "elevators," were in a downward position, which prevented the plane from lifting off.

The Gulfstream got up to a top speed of 165 knots as it rumbled down the runway, but the plane could not leave the ground.

In the likely panicked moments that followed, the pilots attempted to bring the plane to a halt.

They ran out of space. The plane rolled off the end of the runway and onto grass, the NTSB said, then struck lighting and an antenna assembly before plummeting into a gully where it burst into flames.

Witnesses described seeing an enormous fireball reaching into the night sky.

Katz, 72, who had just days earlier won an auction along with H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest for control of the Daily News, Inquirer and Philly.com, did not survive.

His friends - Susan Asbell, 68; Marcella Dalsey, 59; and Anne Leeds, 74 - had joined him for a trip to Massachusetts to attend a fund-raising event at the Boston-area home of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. They had boarded the plane for the flight back to Atlantic City when the crash occurred.

Veteran pilot James McDowell, 51, co-pilot Bauke de Vries, 45, and flight attendant Teresa Ann Bernhoff, 48, had worked with Katz for years.

Yesterday's report was anything but final, however, and raised additional questions.

Although the flight-data recorder indicated that the tail flaps were in a downward, locked position, "the gust lock handle in the cockpit . . . was found in the forward (OFF) [or unlocked] position, and the elevator gust lock latch was found not engaged," the report shows.

And had the tail flaps been locked, the plane should have not been able to reach such a high speed.

The NTSB noted that the preliminary report could contain errors, and that any of the information could change as its investigation continues.

On Twitter: @dgambacorta

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