Safety improved after deadly 2003 Charlotte crash

Crash of Flight 5481 in Charlotte led to new focus on maintenance problems

The Charlotte ObserverJanuary 9, 2013 

— On a cold January morning in 2003, US Airways Express Flight 5481 stalled during takeoff and crashed into a hangar at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, killing all 21 people aboard.

A decade later, the wreckage has been cleared and millions of dollars in settlement money has been paid, but loved ones who gathered for a memorial ceremony at the airport on Tuesday said the pain is still palpable.

“We still miss them every single day,” said Janet Albury, who lost three family members in the crash.

Amid the questions that followed the crash, something constructive emerged: The tragedy focused more attention on growing airline maintenance problems.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators concluded the plane was doomed by sloppy maintenance, improper weight distribution and poor federal safety oversight.

The problems began Jan. 6, 2003, when a contract mechanic at a West Virginia maintenance hangar was asked to adjust cables that helped control the pitch of a Beech 1900D. The mechanic had never done the job on that type of plane. And with his trainer’s approval, he skipped key steps in the maintenance manual.

Two days later, loaded with passengers and bags, the tail-heavy plane took off at an unusually sharp angle. Pilots Leslie and Jonathan Gibbs were unable to push the plane’s nose down. The elevator, a tail flap which helps control the plane’s pitch, could move downward only half the usual amount because of the mistakes made in West Virginia, the investigators found. The plane stalled at 1,100 feet.

Following the crash, an Observer investigation found a pattern of shortcomings in the way commercial planes are maintained and inspected. At the time, U.S. airlines were spending less to maintain planes; mechanics were checking them less often; and federal oversight had not kept up with the trend to outsource more repair work.

The crash and its aftermath prompted changes. Maintenance manuals that contributed to two fatal crashes were reworked. Mechanics’ labor unions took new steps to prevent maintenance errors. And the Federal Aviation Administration hired two experts to study why maintenance mistakes happen and how to prevent them. Their work has helped the FAA set safety priorities.

U.S. airlines have been on a safety streak, with no fatal crashes since early 2009. Former NTSB member John Goglia attributes some of that to the retirement of older planes.

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