Airport chief says runway is safe

August 1, 2008 6:09:25 PM PDT
The manager of a regional airport where eight people died in the crash of a business jet said Friday that the 5,500-foot runway is adequate, noting that similar aircraft land there routinely. "It's a good business line," Dave Beaver said of the runway.

Beaver, manager of the Owatonna Degner Regional Airport, said severe weather in the area had calmed down by the time the Hawker jet crashed at about 9:45 a.m. He said he would let investigators decide whether the airport's systems were working properly at the time of the crash.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators were surveying the wreckage and looking for clues Friday. Some investigators examined the runway, where witnesses said the plane landed and became airborne again before disappearing behind a row of trees about 500 feet from the runway's edge.

The plane hit the ground in a cornfield and skidded for about 50 yards, then crossed a gravel road and continued to skid, clearing the corn in its path and leaving behind a swath of dirt and debris.

It came to rest with its fuselage nearly vertical and its landing gear out. The cabin was a pile of crunched metal and debris, and the white tail poked up about a foot above a sea of corn. A piece of siding with rivets lay on the road, and other pipes, bits of yellow insulation, a pully, wires and bits of metal were tossed about. The area smelled slightly of fuel.

Seat cushions were scattered along the skid. Other signs of the lives lost peppered the debris: plastic drinking cups and paper plates, a granola bar wrapper, and packaging from a bag of Tazo Earl Grey tea. A cracked CD jewel case lay in the road near a playing card face down in the gravel.

NTSB member Steven Chealander said the agency wouldn't speculate on a cause until the investigation is complete, which could take a year. Investigators will examine the weather, the background of the pilots, the plane's condition, witness accounts and air controller traffic prior to the crash.

"We are in the evidence-gathering stage of this investigation," Chealander said in a briefing to reporters.

The cockpit voice recorder was recovered Thursday and sent to the NTSB lab in Washington for analysis, along with a flight management system, a device that contains data but is less elaborate than the flight data recorders on large jets.

The jet was carrying six casino and construction executives and two pilots when the plane went down, killing all aboard. The executives were coming to Owatonna to meet with representatives of a local glass company called Viracon to discuss a $2 billion hotel-casino complex being built in Atlantic City by Revel Entertainment.

The airport has no control tower, and pilots communicate with Federal Aviation Administration stations nearby.

An hour before the crash, a wind gust of 72 mph was reported in Owatonna, according to the National Weather Service. But witnesses said the crash occurred after the worst of the storm had passed, with the sky clearing and only light rain.

One witness said there was standing water on the runway. But Beaver said during a news conference that no other pilots reported braking problems.