Although it will still be many months before the NTSB is ready to determine a probable cause in the May 15, 2017 loss of control accident of a Learjet 35A during a circling approach to Teterboro Airport (TEB), the Board’s investigation docket opened last week revealed a number of concerns about the two pilots aboard the jet, both of who died in the accident. There were no passengers on board.
The Learjet – N452DA – was registered to A&C Big Sky Aviation LLC and operated by Trans-Pacific Air Charter LLC., based in Honolulu. The first officer (SIC) was the flying pilot on the day of the accident, with the captain monitoring, despite company operations specs that clearly stated the SIC should not be handling any of the flying duties. Reading the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) transcript released by the NTSB detailed the final 30 minutes of the flight from Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) to TEB that could at best be described as confusing, with a captain pushing the SIC along when that pilot was clearly not prepared to fly the Learjet in the busy New York airspace. While the weather at TEB was VMC, ferocious winds were blowing from the northwest with gusts to 32 knots, enough to test most pilots, let alone an SIC with just a few hundred hours in the Learjet 35.
The Learjet was cleared for the TEB ILS runway 6 approach with the expectation of a circling maneuver to runway 1, a procedure often used for IFR traffic at TEB since runway 1 does not offer a straight in approach due to nearby Newark Airport. In most situations, crews break off the approach around the outer marker TORBY, 3.8 southwest of TEB, in order to have sufficient room to maneuver to land. When the Newark controller cleared N452DA for the approach, they added instructions to “cross VINGS (20 nm southwest of the airport) at 240 knots and then slow to 180 knots until crossing TORBY (3.8 nm from the end of runway 6).
This day however, the Learjet continued inbound past TORBY and was just a mile southwest of TEB when it began the circling maneuver. At that distance, the Learjet entered a steep right turn in order to set up for the left turn into runway 1. Controllers in the tower on the east side of the airport reported seeing the bottom of the Learjet as it entered that steep right turn as winds were being reported as 360 at 16 knots gusting 32 knots. Shortly after the aircraft entered the turn, witnesses reported the aircraft entering an uncontrolled descent before it impacted the ground half a mile south of the approach end of runway 1 at approximately 1530 local time.
Factors in the Accident?
The CVR recorded the last half hour of the flight. In the final moments before impact, the transcript highlighted confusion about who actually flying the aircraft, a problem that actually appeared long before the turn to downwind. New York airspace is almost always busy, so the fact that the two pilots were working hard to keep up with the airplane might not seem all that unusual to pilots who regularly operate there. But there were other clues that would have concerned a check pilot had they been looking over the shoulders of this crew. For instance, the crew briefing for the approach was almost nil with the captain stating he only had time to grab the TEB altimeter setting and that they’d be shooting the ILS to runway 6.
There are other clues that might call the crew’s professionalism into question. At one point, a PHL controller queried the crew about their airspeed to which the captain responded “260 knots.” Aircraft below 10,000 feet are normally restricted to an indicated airspeed not greater than 250 knots, an issue that on the surface might seem like a tiny infraction of the rules. The two pilots actually did discuss whether they might be violated for the infraction.
Other facts emerging from the NTSBs docket during the early days of the investigation include interviews with pilots at the captain’s previous job where they reported they “did not consider him ready to upgrade to captain,” due in part to his relative passivity with his use of checklists in the cockpit.” Another said the pilot was OK in the right seat, but not ready to check out as captain due to his lack of experience. The accident captain flew as SIC in the Learjet at his old company until May 2006 when he was let go due to a lack of work. He was rehired eight years later into the right seat of the Beechjet 400 where he remained until December 2015 when his employment contract was not renewed.
A background check on the captain discovered he had a 2002 driver’s license suspended due to an excess of points that was not reported on his most recent medical application as required. He was also in 1986 convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, a charge that was reduced to a misdemeanor, but was also not self-reported on his recent medical certificate.
The captain’s training records uncovered a number of failed checkrides, including a December 1996 disapproval for a certified flight instructor rating, a November 1997 disapproval for a commercial pilot certificate and a February 2001 disapproval for a multi-engine airline transport pilot certificate. He did eventually earn his commercial and ATP certificate.
Training records from CAE reported issues with the captain transitioning to the left seat of the Learjet in October 2016. In July 2016, CAE records indicated the captain was found not proficient in circling approaches and not recommended for his type rating checkride. Specifically, the captain’s CAE instructor on July 17, 2016 reported to his boss that “the Captain had been out of the airplane for 7 years and the instructor could not recommend the Captain for a check ride due to a lack of proficiency.” He passed his Learjet type rating ride one week later. The captain also passed a company proficiency check in March 2017, two months prior to the accident. He’d logged 1158 hours in the Learjet by the day of the accident.
The pilot flying the N452DA as SIC on the day of the accident had logged approximately 265 hours in Learjet of his 2700 hours total time. His records indicated that he too had failed some checkrides, noticeably his private ride, twice, once on April 10, 2009 and again three days later. He did pass his private checkride successfully on April 28, 2009. On his 2007 and 2009 medical certificate application, the SIC reported he had been convicted in May 2003 for, “street racing and running away from the police and assault on a police officer, but that it was third degree.”
During his previous employment, the pilot flew right seat in the Learjet for MedFlight Air Ambulance of Albuquerque New Mexico. That company’s records showed the SIC pilot was under review for weak performance when he resigned his position in January 2016. He was hired by Sunquest Executive Air Charter (predecessor company name to Trans-Pacific) nine months later as SIC on the accident aircraft and began flying the Learjet in November 2016.
During his formal training, CAE reports indicated the SIC required four additional simulator sessions to prepare for the Learjet checkride. The CAE instructor said the pilot “struggled with normal approaches,” and “did not perform takeoff checks correctly or know what to look for during the checks.” The instructor suggested the pilot was not initially prepared for his Learjet type rating ride.
Within the Trans-Pacific operation, SIC pilots were ranked on a 0 to 4 scale and restricted as to the type of flying they were allowed to perform so as not to overwhelm them before they were ready. In order to be allowed to fly as SIC on empty legs, the right seat pilot of the accident aircraft would have been required to hold a rating of SIC-2. On the day of the accident, he was rated as a “0” and as such should not have been in command of the aircraft at any time.
Back to the TEB Arrival
An indication of how far behind the two pilot were on the arrival to TEB came as the Newark controller working the Learjet told them to contact TEB tower while the aircraft was still 6.4 miles out. The crew failed to do so and continued inbound on the approach. The crew had been told to begin the circle at TORBY, but again, the crew continued inbound to runway 6. Rather than beginning the circle at TORBY, the crew didn’t actually begin a right turn to enter left traffic for runway 1 until the aircraft was close enough to the airport, that the only options were the steep right turn, or a missed approach. TEB tower had just cleared an aircraft for departure on runway 1 as the Learjet began the circling maneuver.
Earlier, the crew had calculated 126 knots for the approach speed and 119 knots for their reference speed at which they’d normally cross the runway threshold. During the turn downwind, that gusty wind may well have added at least another 20 knots to their speed, translating into about 2 ½ miles per minute across the ground, hardly a comfortable traffic pattern speed for even an experienced pilot.
As the jet approached TEB, the captain sounded frustrated because the SIC could not seem to keep up with the aircraft. “Runway’s out there somewhere. I don’t know why you’re looking over there,” he said when he realized the SIC had been looking at Newark and not TEB.
About nine minutes before the accident and approximately 29 miles from TEB, the SIC wanted to slow the aircraft to 180 knots, but the captain said, “No, no … keep it about 240.” With seven minutes to go, the SIC said, “go ahead and take over I’ll uh … I’ll uh …” but the captain didn’t respond to the comment. Whether at that point the SIC was asking the captain to assume command is simply not clear without more context, except the SIC did say he didn’t want to screw up the approach.
At 15:25:40, approximately four minutes prior to the accident, the SIC again tried to slow the airplane. The captain responded, “no, no, no, no … we haven’t captured the glideslope yet.” Ninety seconds before the crash, the captain told the SIC to slow the Learjet to 180 knots, “cause I gotta get you flaps twenty.” At 15:28:46, the SIC said he was holding 800 feet for the circle to which the captain replied “watch your airspeed. Hands on the throttle.”
The final 40 seconds of the flight are confusing at best with the tower wondering when they were going to turn downwind. “Delta Alpha, you gonna start that turn?” About this time the captain seems to have instructed the SIC to disconnect the autopilot and enter the right turn. “Hand on the # … (possibly throttles again) …” Then at 15:29:14 the captain instructed the SIC to “watch your airspeed.” Apparently overwhelmed at this point, the SIC responded “your flight controls.” A full 15 more seconds passed before the captain acknowledged the switch with, “Alright, my controls,” just after the ground proximity warning system called “sink rate, pull up.” “Watch my airspeed,” the captain said.
There were seconds of groans and heavy breathing in the cockpit until at 15:29:35 that captain said first, “Vref,” then “no.” The SIC called, “add airspeed, airspeed, airspeed, airspeed …” At 15:29:40, the captain said, “stall,” in a strained voice to which the SIC replied “yup.” The GPWS yelled “sink rate, pull up,” one final time before the recording ended.
An interesting side note to details uncovered about the SIC, was that prior to the accident at TEB, he’d accepted a new position with Morristown-based Short Hills Aviation and was scheduled to begin SIC simulator training in the Falcon 50/900 eight days later. No one at Trans-Pacific knew the pilot was planning to leave his current position on the day of the accident.