NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A plane with a disabled ground warning system inadvertently veered over land in Colombia while conducting drug surveillance last fall and crashed into a hill, killing four people aboard, according to a U.S. Air Force report released Wednesday.
Details of the October crash near the Panamanian border were released in an investigation report by Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va. The report says an enhanced ground warning proximity system had been disabled three days before the flight because it had been giving erroneous warnings. The preflight mission briefing failed to mention that, according to the report.
The report says alternate procedures are required when planes lack a ground warning system, but none were ever established for the flight.
Three Americans and one Panamanian died when the twin-engine turboprop crashed. Two U.S. contractors serving as the plane's pilots were rescued by Colombian military forces.
The report says the plane had been flying at about 4,000 feet, but dipped to below 1,500 feet to get below a low cloud ceiling. After getting word from the Colombian Navy of a suspected drug trafficker in the area, the plane began tracking the vessel and inadvertently flew over land twice.
The first time, the pilots were able to correct their course and get back over water in less than 90 seconds after clearing a roughly 1,000 foot hill by about 400 feet. The second time, the plane had flown about two miles inland before anyone realized anything was wrong.
Nobody in the plane could see land because there was no moonlight or other lighting available. As the crew tried to correct their course, they unknowingly put the plane directly on a path toward a hill.
About 23 seconds before impact, one of the plane's crew members told the pilots to climb - which wasn't acknowledged by the pilots. About five seconds later, the same crew member was heard over the plane's intercom saying to "Come up, elevate, elevate up." Once again, there was no response from the pilots. With 12 seconds to impact, the same crew member issued another command to "Elevate your speed, er, altitude, altitude."
That time, the pilots finally acknowledged, with one saying "OK" and the other "Altitude? Alright." While the pilots attempted to gain altitude, the report says it was too late. The plane crashed into the hill at an altitude of about 1,550 feet, which was about 300 feet below its crest. The plane burst into flames and the pilots escaped through a hole in the cockpit window. One jumped about 15 feet to the ground, while the other scaled down a tree. The others died upon impact.
If the ground warning system had been working, the report says the pilots would have had at least 34 seconds to avoid the hill, which would have been plenty of time.
The report said the mission also lacked appropriate operational oversight. The plane belonged to a contractor, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and the report says their contract didn't require training related to the mission.
"This resulted from a contracting process that attempted to reduce costs to the U.S. government, but produced an environment in which civilian contractors executed complex military-style missions with no formal collective aircrew training and no military oversight of maintenance," the report says.
The Air Force said the contractors killed in the crash were William Burnette and Ralph Dietz. The others who died were U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Martin Gonzales and Lt. Lloyd Nunez, a Panamanian Guardsman.