By LESLIE MILLER
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - More people than ever are traveling on smaller regional jets, and federal investigators are taking a look at whether the pilots who fly them are getting adequate training and supervision.
A special hearing was prompted by the crash of a 50-seat Pinnacle Airlines jet that sustained engine failure after the pilots failed to make proper adjustments at extremely high altitudes.
The two pilots, Capt. Jesse Rhodes and First Officer Peter Cesarz, were alone in the plane they were ferrying from Little Rock, Ark., to Minneapolis on Oct. 14.
While joking and laughing, they took the plane to an altitude of 41,000 feet, higher than aircraft usually fly. They flew it too fast. They switched seats in mid-air, moved the rudder back and forth and ignored cockpit warnings that the plane was about to stall, or stop flying.
Then, when both engines failed, the pilots didn't follow the proper procedures to restart them, didn't declare an emergency immediately - and even told air traffic control that only one engine was out, when both were. The plane crashed in a residential neighborhood of Jefferson City, Mo. No one was injured on the ground, but both pilots were killed.
Pinnacle's chief pilot, Capt. Terry Mefford, told the National Transportation Safety Board of inquiry there isn't much the company could have done to prevent the pilots from flying recklessly.
"It's very difficult to train for something that's that far out of the norm," Mefford said. If he ever found out about pilots flying too high, too fast, or too rashly, he'd ground them, he said.
Safety investigators were interested in finding out how much the fast-growing company knew about its pilots - and why it had changed its training and procedures since the accident.
Pinnacle Airlines is an affiliate of Northwest Airlines and flies for Delta and Continental. Like many regional carriers, Pinnacle is growing rapidly as it teams up with a traditional network airline looking to offer more seats to more places.
The Memphis, Tenn.-based airline grew by 700 percent in the past five years, according to Phil Reed, its marketing vice president. During that time, it switched its fleet from propeller-driven planes to regional jets.
Many other airlines are making the switch to the sophisticated little jets, prompting concern that pilots aren't getting enough training because there's so much demand for them.
During the first half of 1999, regional jets accounted for 6 percent of departures in the United States, according to Michael Allen, chief operating officer at Back Aviation Solutions of New Haven, Conn.
During the first half of this year, 33 percent of all domestic flights are on regional jets, Allen said.
The Air Line Pilots Association, the pilots' largest union, said in a statement that regional airlines' pilots have less time to get firsthand experience flying the jets.
"Carriers like Pinnacle must provide comprehensive operational training to compensate for this lack of hands-on experience and to better prepare its pilots for the transition to jet aircraft," the union's statement said.
Since the accident, the airline has changed its training and modified the checklists that pilots use to guide them in the rare event that two engines flame out. The Federal Aviation Administration has also asked Pinnacle to require more experience of its pilots.
Pinnacle's Mefford defended the airline's pilots as very professional. He said he gets feedback from pilots who conduct check flights and others within the company. Pinnacle also randomly checks the flight data recorders after pilots have ferried planes without passengers, he said.
The safety board also wanted to know why Pinnacle didn't train its pilots how to recover from the situation Cesarz and Rhodes found themselves in.
Thomas Palmer, who headed training for Pinnacle's regional jet pilots, said the airline focused its training on how to recognize and avoid stalling the airplane. He also said the company believed it was extremely improbable that two jet engines would fail.
Palmer said that the company sped up its training when the airline was growing rapidly. It could do so, he said, because its pilots had more experience.
On the Net:
National Transportation Safety Board: http://www.ntsb.gov