Sulemans’ plane crashed minutes after take off — likely due to winds

fili@samoanews.com

The “probable cause” of a small plane that crashed in the sea minutes after take off from Pago Pago International Airport has been attributed to loss of control of the plane during the initial climb in gusty windy conditions, according to findings by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation, in its final report.

Based on the federal probe, the single engine Beechcraft plane crashed before 11p.m. July 22, 2014.

As reported by Samoa News at the time, there were two passengers on board — 57-year-old Barbar Suleman and his 17-year-old son, Haris, who had hoped to set the record for the fastest circumnavigation around the world in a single-engine airplane, with the youngest pilot in command. His journey also was a fundraiser to help build schools in his father's native Pakistan.

The Sulemans were residents of Plainfield, Ind. Harris’ remains were recovered, but not those of his father, along with the rest of the aircraft.

A memorial service at sea was held in American Samoa, a few days after the crash, and before the body of the younger Suleman was returned to his home on the US mainland.

According to the final NTSB investigation report, which was released last November, the “probable cause” of the accident is, “A loss of airplane control during the initial climb in gusting wind conditions for reasons that could not be determined because the wreckage was not recovered from the ocean.”

Samoa News only learned that the investigation was completed after the search of NTSB public records early this week following two queries early last week as to the status of the aviation accident, which is now over two years since it occurred.

“The wreckage was not recovered. The investigation could not determine if there were any mechanical issues during the initial takeoff that would have resulted in the loss of airplane control,” the NTSB said, but never identified the victims by name in the report.

In an analysis of the investigation, NTSB reports states that before the plane’s departure, a ground crewman observed the pilots complete preflight checks. The ground crewman stated that he told the pilots that the wind had been gusting and was strong all day and evening but that the pilots indicated to him that the weather was good for takeoff.

The ground crewman observed the airplane taxi for departure, lift off, and then turn right at the end of the runway. “He estimated that the airplane only climbed to about 90 feet before it suddenly nosed down into the ocean,” the report says.

“The ground crewman's wife noted that, as the airplane moved down the runway, the wind was very strong. She noted that, although the airplane became airborne, it was moving up and down and side to side and not gaining altitude,” the report says and quotes another witness — who was a couple of miles from the accident site — saying that the airplane did not gain much altitude before it went straight down into the water.

NTSB also publicly released documents from its investigation and includes a July 25, 2014 “document report” from the airport’s swing shift on the evening of July 22. It states in part that around 9:58p.m. the plane was approaching on runway five for take off and communication between airport personnel show that a witness at the airport saw the plane take off and turn south.

The ground agent, for the plane, contacted airport officials — about 10 minutes later — to see if anyone has heard from the plane’s occupants and efforts were made to contact them via radio, but there was no answer. And this was around 10:17p.m. Contact was then made with the control tower at Faleolo International Airport in Samoa if the plane had made contact with them, and the answer was no.

The airport fire and rescue division was called for a rescue vehicle with spotlights to check the reefs. Around 10:37p.m. Faleolo contacted Tafuna airport to confirm that the New Zealand Search and Rescue Center in Christchurch had received a “distress signal” south of the Tafuna airport and the local airport officials then called 911 around 10:41p.m. for Marine Patrol and Coast Guard.

In the Marine Patrol Division report, Capt. Tulele T. Laolagi says the airport contacted them and Marine Patrol dispatched a unit around 10:51 p.m. onboard the marine patrol boat. Laolagi also received a call from New Zealand Search and Rescue providing the coordinates of the distress signal and one of the officers onboard “spotted a light flashing from a distance.”

As the boat neared the flashing light, the officers “noticed a floating airplane seat with a body strapped to it” and Laolagi immediately called central dispatcher to report that the first victim was located. The body was removed from the seat and “carefully transferred … onto the boat.”

“At that moment, a strong smell of gas was in the air. Afterwards, a ring buoy was tied to the seat to mark the location where the first victim was picked up,” the report said adding that as they continued to search for the second victim, the officers spotted another flashing light south of their location.

“...We then immediately responded hoping that it would be the second victim, but it was the EPIRB” — an emergency position-indicating radio-beacon — and it was picked up, according to Laolagi’s report, which also noted that a second boat, owned by Industrial Gus, carrying other Marine Patrol officers was also heading towards the location of the marine patrol boat.

While the Industrial Gas boat remained in the area at sea to continue the search for the second victim, the marine patrol boat returned to the island dock arriving around 1:31a.m. (July 23) and the victim’s remains were then transferred to the waiting EMS ambulance.

Around 2:28a.m the marine patrol boat headed back to continue the search and to assist the Industrial Gas boat. At 4:28a.m both boats returned to port and 35-minutes later, Lt. Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga, who was acting governor at the time, was given a briefing.

Statements from two other marine patrol officers were also included in the documents released by NTSB.

Also released by NTSB are police and Federal Aviation Administration photos showing a forward cargo door and interior piece; plane seat and airframe piece, two life vests; and several pieces of plane debris.

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