ST. LOUIS - Initially suspected of terrorism, two Grand Aire pilots were dubbed heroes yesterday - a day after their cargo jet crashed into the Mississippi River near the famous Arch.
Pilot Saleem Iqbal, 34, of Houston, was upgraded from critical to serious condition while pilot Mohamed Saleh, 44, of Springfield Township, was upgraded from serious to fair condition yesterday, according to St. Louis police.
As the Toledo-based pilots were recovering in St. Louis University Hospital, federal, state, and local authorities spent Tuesday night and yesterday morning investigating the background of Mr. Iqbal, a resident alien from Pakistan, and Mr. Saleh, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Libya.
“It's the times we're living in now that we would have that kind of reaction,” said Richard Wilks, a St. Louis police spokesman. “It's better to be safe than sorry and to make sure everything's checked out.”
Authorities concluded the pair had run out of fuel and chose to ditch the plane in the river to avoid crashing in populated areas. By morning, officials pulled the police officers stationed outside the pair's hospital rooms, and by the afternoon they had briefed reporters about what they considered the pilots' bravery in a time of distress.
“This is a case of heroism, not terrorism,” said Tom Bush, head of the St. Louis FBI office.
Now the National Transportation Safety Board must formally determine the factors involved in the crash, including whether the pilots skimped on fuel at the start of the flight.
In the St. Louis crash, the FAA's initial report said the Dassault Falcon 20 was circling St. Louis' major airport - Lambert International - for a second attempt at landing when it radioed it had an emergency, lost power in both engines, and crashed into the Mississippi River near the McKinley Bridge about 7:30 p.m. Toledo time.
Authorities said Mr. Saleh pulled Mr. Iqbal from the wreckage and safeguarded him until firefighters arrived by boat. They ferried the pair to a waiting ambulance.
The U.S. Coast Guard closed the river to barge traffic for five hours, which delayed about a dozen ships and barges. During that time, the broken-apart plane floated toward the heart of downtown under fire boat escort.
The wreckage was pulled into a flat-deck barge to be taken ashore and trucked to an undisclosed warehouse for inspection, said Coast Guard Lt. Fred Stipkovits.
FAA spokesman Elizabeth Isham Cory said the pilots had told air traffic controllers that they were low on fuel. Now the NTSB will look at why.
To prevent planes from running out of fuel, FAA regulations require pilots to keep enough fuel on board to reach the intended airport as well as a secondary airport if need be. On top of that, a plane must keep an additional amount of fuel to last 45 more minutes in the air at normal cruising speeds - barring some exceptions such as weather.
“All this is being sorted out as we speak,” Ms. Isham Cory said. “This is all part of the investigation.”
Among the questions is whether the pair skimped on fuel to make it easier to take off from a small airport in Del Rio, Texas, just across the border from a complex of Mexican factories.
Airport Director Jack Richardson said some pilots do that with loaded aircraft to ensure they can take off from the small, 5,000-foot runway, but he said that typically doesn't occur until summer, when hot weather makes it harder to get wing lift.
“When it gets really hot down here, some common practice is that you either skimp on the load or the fuel,” he said.
But he said he didn't know what the situation was with the Grand Aire jet, which was carrying automobile seat covers.
A woman who fueled the jet for the airport's Phillips Air said one of the pilots ordered 700 gallons. The woman, who declined to give her name, said the pilots are responsible for determining how much fuel they need, based on their load, runway length, and the weather.
“We put in what he requested,” she said. “Why he didn't get more, I don't know.”
This report includes information from the Associated Press.