Investigation of Tuesday’s plane crash begins

Thursday, December 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:55 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Federal investigators Wednesday began trying to unravel why a small corporate jet crashed on a Missouri River island, killing the company’s top executive and an employee.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the twin-engine Hansa 320 — registered to an air charter company that lost two planes in five hours last year — went down on Howell Island west of St. Louis about 8:15 p.m. Tuesday, shortly after leaving Spirit of St. Louis Airport in suburban Chesterfield.

The plane was bound for Toledo, Ohio, home of Grand Aire Express Inc., identified by the FAA as the plane’s registered owner.

Company officials said the dead — the only two people aboard the plane — were Grand Aire president and chief executive Tahir Cheema, 50, of the Toledo suburb of Perrysburg, Ohio, and Grand Aire pilot Eko Pinardi, of Fort Wayne, Ind., and St. Charles County.

Grand Aire said in a statement that Cheema was flying the plane from St. Louis to Toledo on personal business, with Pinardi as the co-pilot.

“Grand Aire has suffered a terrible loss,” the company said in a statement while imploring in a sign on the headquarters’ door to “please respect this loss and allow our employees to grieve.”

The jet disappeared from radar shortly after taking off, prompting a search hampered by weather conditions. The National Weather Service said light snow was falling at the time the plane took off, with wind gusting at 23 miles per hour and visibility of about nine miles. High water left the bridge providing access to the island impassable.

About 3 a.m. Wednesday, the wreckage was spotted from a police helicopter, about seven hours before crews using boats removed the bodies, said Lt. Craig McGuire of the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department.

The FAA said the investigation was being led by the National Transportation Safety Board, which did not immediately return telephone messages.

The aircraft reportedly had neither a voice recorder nor a data recorder, which could make the investigation more difficult.

Richard Hrabko, Spirit of St. Louis Airport’s director, said an instrument flight plan had been filed and the plane took off with a full load of fuel. He said the plane had been at the airport for several weeks and the two men arrived there Tuesday to make the flight.

Hrabko said airport workers reported the jet sounded as though it was having trouble during takeoff and lost its engines shortly after getting airborne.

McGuire said the wreckage was found two to three miles from the airport, on the southwest tip of island.

The 19-year-old company pledged to carry on despite losing Cheema, who the company’s Web site says arrived in the United States in 1974 with $40 in his pocket, attended the University of Alabama and got an engineering degree before working for the “Big Three” U.S. automakers.

Grand Aire built its business on making short-notice deliveries of auto parts to factories across the country. But as the auto industry suffered slow sales, car companies shipped less cargo by air.

The Toledo Blade reported on its Web site Wednesday that over the past decade, Grand Aire has had 10 crashes serious enough to warrant NTSB inquiries, including two on the same day in April of last year — what the newspaper said was the only time any aviation company has lost two planes on the same day except for Sept. 11, 2001.

On April 8, 2003, a Grand Aire plane went down near Toledo Express Airport, killing all three aboard the training flight. Five hours later, two pilots escaped injury when a Grand Aire plane splashed down in the Mississippi River after apparently running out of fuel north of the Gateway Arch near downtown St. Louis.

The NTSB has ruled that the Ohio crash, about a mile short of the runway, probably was caused by pilot error, among other things, including the chief pilot’s failure to maintain proper airspeed. The board also cited the flight instructor’s failure to turn on anti-icing equipment and his lack of experience as an instructor pilot in the plane.

Both planes in those crashes were Dassault Aviation Falcon 20s.

Grand Aire grounded its planes for nine days after those crashes and said it was struggling to recover, asking the agency that runs Toledo’s airport to buy its hangar for $5 million and lease it back to the charter service.

“That would alleviate many of my cash problems,” Cheema said at the time, adding that lost business and higher insurance premiums after the April 2003 crashes forced him to try to increase his cash flow.

Cheema also said “negative” media coverage about the crashes and the company’s safety record have “devastated the business.”

On Wednesday, the company called itself “financially strong with a solid management team and will remain a viable business.”

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