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NTSB Posts Initial Report On El Yunque Crash

Dec. 26, 2008 — The cause of the crash is still unknown, but a preliminary report from on the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that three people died earlier this month when the twin engine Aero Commander they were flying in veered off course and hit the side of a cliff in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest.
The aircraft departed Dec. 3 from Beef Island International Airport in Tortola and was destined for San Juan., according to the report on the NTSB website. The plane was expected to come in from the east, but flew off course to the west-southwest and headed toward "mountainous terrain," according to the report. (See "Three Presumed Dead in El Yunque Crash.")
When advised by an approach controller that he was flying too low, Webster asked if he could "stay right just a little," since the plane was moving "in and out of some clouds." The minimum vectoring altitude for the area was 5,500 feet above mean sea level, and Webster had descended to 3,200 feet, according to the report.
"The approach controller then advised the pilot to maintain visual flight rules conditions and once again advised him of the minimum vectoring altitude," the report said. "The approach controller then made multiple attempts to make contact with the pilot of the … airplane without result."
Another pilot, calling in a few minutes later with a request to get clearance into San Juan, said he was observing precipitation.
"According to witness statements, just prior to the accident, an airplane was heard flying at low altitude over El Yunque National Forest on an approximate heading of 260 degrees near state road 191," according to the report. "Moments later an explosion was heard. Witnesses also reported that, in the area surrounding the accident site fog and rain were present and the mountains were obscured from view."
A search by local, state and federal agencies revealed that Webster’s plane had crashed inside the forest, on the southeast side of a mountain. The main part of the plane landed perpendicular to the cliff face at 2,310 feet, and displayed "heavy crush and fragmentation damage, along with post crash fire damage," according to the report.
Wing fragments, along with parts of the nose section, cockpit, flight controls, fuselage, engine and gear boxes were also found against the cliff. Other parts of the plane — including pieces of the propellers and power sections from both engines were discovered about 200 feet below the cliff. There was about a 50-degree slope between the cliff and the wreckage, the report.
"Examination of the wreckage revealed that the landing gear was retracted," the report said. "Control continuity could not be established; however, no evidence of any pre-impact flight control or structural failure were discovered. Examination of the engines’ power sections revealed that both were missing their gearboxes."
Federal Aviation Administration records indicate Webster held an airline transport pilot certificate with multiple ratings. His most recent FAA first-class medical certificate was issued in April – at that time, he had reported 9,600 hours of flight experience, according to the NTSB report.
The plane, a Rockwell International Aero Commander 690B, N318WA, was manufactured in 1977. Its last phase inspection was on Feb. 14, 2008. At the time of its inspection, the airplane had accrued 5,286 total hours of operation, according to the report.
The full report can be accessed online at the NTSB website.
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