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Published: Friday, 2/10/2006

Excavation at site of plane crash starts today

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Excavation of the site where a small cargo plane owned by a Toledo company crashed Wednesday near Paris, Tenn., will begin today, perhaps producing clues as to why the plane went down, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator said last night.

"We didn't accomplish much today. The first day of an investigation often doesn't produce much because people are still arriving from all over the country," said Butch Wilson, an investigator from Atlanta.

"And the airplane has dug itself a nice big hole, so we had to arrange to bring in some equipment to dig it out," he said.

About 1:10 p.m. Wednesday, a TriCoastal Air Inc. twin-engine Swearingen turbo-prop crashed into a wooded area behind a home, killing the only person aboard, pilot Abdulgader Zbedah, 42, of Louisville.

TriCoastal Air and Grand Aire Inc. are under common ownership and are based at Toledo Express Airport.

The TriCoastal plane was on a cargo flight from Dayton to Harlingen, Texas. The crash occurred about 85 miles west of Nashville.

Mr. Wilson confirmed reports that Mr. Zbedah declared an emergency on the airplane's radio before the crash.

But he said other details of that communication remain to be determined from a review of air-traffic control tapes the investigator expects to receive today. The plane carried no voice or data recorders.

The plane is reported to have spiraled into the ground, creating a crater 15 to 20 feet deep and breaking up into a debris field of many small pieces. But Mr. Wilson said the severe impact does not preclude determining a cause.

"We'll start piecing things together as we recover them and, if necessary, we'll take it someplace where we can reconstruct the plane," he said.

Mr. Wilson said he expects to be on the scene for several days and that investigations of this nature typically take six months to a year to complete.

Staff at Grand Aire's headquarters at Toledo Express yesterday declined to comment on the accident, referring inquiries to Brian Schwartz, a spokesman for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which operates Toledo Express.

Mr. Schwartz said he had no new information on the crash.

The crash was the fourth fatal accident involving a Grand Aire-affiliated plane, with seven aviators killed, since 2002.

A pilot died that year in a crash near Columbus, Ind., while three Grand Aire pilots, including its chief pilot, were killed in an April, 2003, crash west of Toledo Express. And on Nov. 30, 2004, Grand Aire co-founder and president Tahir Cheema and a co-pilot died in a crash near St. Louis.

The 2002 and 2003 crashes were blamed on human error. An NTSB investigation of the 2004 crash, in which Mr. Cheema was flying a plane that had a special permit for a maintenance-related ferry flight, remains incomplete.

Between March, 1995, and August, 2001, the airline had six other crashes serious enough to warrant NTSB investigations, though none caused life-threatening injuries.

And in May, 2002, Grand Aire agreed to pay the FAA $150,000 to settle 12 violations of federal aviation regulations concerning operations and maintenance for which fines totaling $557,500 had been proposed.

Since early 2004, Grand Aire and successor TriCoastal Air have been under "heightened surveillance" by the FAA, including a requirement that the carrier give advance notice of charter flights so that inspectors may fly along.

Elizabeth Isham Cory, a spokesman for the FAA regional office in Chicago, which is responsible for the company's flight certification, said Grand Aire currently has "no limitations on their operating certificate."

She said FAA officials have seen improvement following changes in ownership and management structure that followed Mr. Cheema's death and the August, 2005, death of his successor, Art Atar.

"We've seen some good things from them, but we continue to watch them," Ms. Cory said.

Any further regulatory action involving Grand Aire or TriCoastal, she said, will depend in part on the outcome of the current crash investigation.

Federal records show seven aircraft currently registered to Grand Aire Express Inc., two to Grand Aire Operations Inc., and 11 - including the one that crashed Wednesday - to TriCoastal Air.

Some list the company headquarters, with a Swanton mailing address, as the point of registration, while others are registered to addresses in Wilmington, Del.

Of the 16 Grand Aire or TriCoastal planes for which years of manufacture are listed in the registration information, none is newer than a 1980 model, and the plane that crashed was built that year.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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