Copilot's mistake may have caused medical plane crash

Associated Press / April 13, 2009
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. - A copilot may have accidentally activated the autopilot on a medical plane shortly before it crashed and killed both pilots and a four-member organ transplant team, according to a federal safety agency's report.

The report on a simulation of the flight's final minutes came from a National Transportation Safety Board team, the Detroit Free Press reported yesterday.

The results of the simulation "are consistent with the copilot inadvertently hitting the autopilot button" instead of another motion control device, the report said. It said the copilot apparently intended to activate the yaw damper, which helps reduce side-to-side oscillations of an aircraft.

If the autopilot is engaged, it would have resisted efforts to maneuver the Cessna Citation II.

The report is from the board's Recorded Radar and Airplane Performance Study Group. Other NTSB teams are looking into the operations of the plane's owner, weather, the plane's air worthiness, maintenance records, and cockpit voice recordings. The five-member board won't issue its conclusion on the probable cause of the crash until after it receives all the reports later this year.

Flight transcripts show that First Officer Dennis Hoyes told Captain Bill Serra that he had activated the aircraft's yaw damper. About 11 seconds later, Serra says: "Why am I fighting the controls here?"

Captain Steve Jones, head of operations at Western Michigan University's College of Aviation, told the Free Press that the two buttons are next to each other on the center console and that many aircraft makers have redesigned consoles to avoid such confusion.

The University of Michigan Survival Flight plane crashed just after takeoff from Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport on June 4, 2007. The Michigan patient who was awaiting a double-lung transplant operation received a second set of donor lungs two days later.