The crash in Newfoundland of a commercial aircraft carrying US military troops home from Egypt has left many unanswered questions. Cause aside, the tragedy focuses attention on charter carriers and in particular whether they are as safe as other commercial airlines.
Democratic Sens. Albert Gore Jr. and James Sasser of Tennessee called Saturday for a congressional investigation into the use of chartered aircraft to transport military personnel. They question whether the plane followed proper flying procedures and whether the Air Force's safety reviews for charters were adequate.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) insists that the standards for safety and duty crew time are the same for all carriers.
But Charles O. Miller, former aviation-safety bureau chief for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), calls that assertion a ``gross distortion'' of the facts. Operation and training rules often vary with individual carriers, he says. And larger airlines tend to follow more stringent standards than charters.
``The [standard] requirements are so broad and there are so many ways that smaller carriers can back out of them,'' Mr. Miller says. The result, he says, is that not all airlines are held to the same requirements.
Crew members on charter carriers often put in longer consecutive hours than their counterparts on major airlines. But this particular crew had come aboard at Cologne, Germany, and had been on duty less than seven hours, according to a spokesman for Miami-based Arrow Air, owner of the aircraft.
Canadian and US investigating authorities have ruled out no possible cause so far except that of contaminated fuel. The explosion and crash came shortly after takeoff from a refueling stop.
The fact that the pilot of the planedid not request de-icing of its wings and fuselage in the freezing predawn drizzle is considered potentially significant. But other aircraft had taken off shortly before it without such treatment.
Although White House and Pentagon officials immediately played down the possibility of a bomb aboard and sabotage, as suggested by some overseas callers, that point, too, is still being checked.
As to reports that the plane's weight, registered at 355,000 pounds by the captain, constituted an overload, an Arrow spokesman insists ``absolutely not.'' And Canadian authorities say the weight as listed is within legal limits.
Much of the current attention in the search for causes appears to be centering on the 16-year-old plane's maintenance records and mechanical state.
Arrow Air has confirmed reports that the DC-8 that crashed had mechanical troubles earlier in 1985. A July flight out of Toledo, Ohio, had to be aborted after takeoff. Then, on Nov. 15 in Grand Rapids, Mich., the tail of the plane hit the runway on takeoff. The aircraft could not leave until the 99 reserve marines had been reseated to shift the load balance.
Arrow was one of 16 airlines penalized for violations in a 1984 federal ``white glove'' inspection of 327 American carriers. The problems, which led to a $34,000 fine and a temporary hold on the airline's plans for expansion, included deferred maintenance and the failure to keep proper training and repair records. The FAA says the deficiencies were corrected within six months. But the DC-8 in question had been scheduled for a major maintenance overhaul after its planned trip from Cairo to Fort Campbell,
There have been reports that airline officials were involved as entrepreneurs in purchasing and contracting out old carriers in the 1970s for cargo operations in which inspection procedures were lax and a number of accidents resulted.
``I think we'll find a lot of bugs underneath the rock on this one -- there are going to be some things uncovered about this carrier,'' predicts Aviation Safety Institute president John Galipault. He says the airline is known to cut back on maintenance and to overwork crews.
The Arrow DC-8 that crashed was originally bought by Eastern Airlines in 1969 and had been owned by three other operators before Arrow. It is this frequent changing of hands rather than the age of the plane which Mr. Miller says most concerns him. It makes it harder to trace the history of the plane, he says, and it raises questions about why a major carrier such as Eastern wanted to sell it. ``A 50,000-hour plane [as this one was] flown by four different operators over the years is a mighty different t hing from a 50,000-hour plane flown by, say, a United Airlines.''
For cost reasons the Pentagon often uses charter carriers rather than its own military aircraft to carry troops to various points. Though there is every indication that this practice will continue, the Army's Military Traffic Management Command has decided since the crash to stop using Arrow temporarily. So has the international peace-keeping force headquartered in Rome, which originally arranged for the charter.
This year has been the worst year for fatalities in the history of international commercial aviation. The total killed in crashes of commercial carriers this year now stands at 1,948.