10/29/02 5:54:33 AM Pacific Standard Time

Dear Kent,

Would you be so kind as to pass the following along to your sleuths?  It is a reply from my brother to an article I had forwarded. He is a natural born left-brain skeptic.  I am not well versed in flight technicalities.  I did not post this publically as it is from my brother and I did not get his permission, thus I have blocked out specific names.  If you need any more information please let me know.  I may be able to get his permission to forward the contact info.  I'd be interested in any feedback you receive.  Thanks.



----begin forwarded message----

My friend xxxxxxxx  in Grand Rapids is a retired airline pilot with Mesaba Airlines, aka Northwest Airlink.  He's flown that area for twenty years as a commercial pilot, and has considerable type experience with the aircraft in question.  He knows the weather conditions in the area at the time, since when he first heard about it, he stopped at the Grand Rapids airport and got them.

Coincidentally, my other friend in Grand Rapids, xxxxxx, was enroute from Minneapolis to Hibbing about a half hour ahead of Wellstone's plane as well.  He was also in a twin-engine turboprop.  xxxx owns his own plane as well (two at the moment, actually -- but he's gonna sell one of them this next Spring) and was in the right hand seat during the flight.

xxxxxx called me immediately after he got home, with the initial report from Other Pilots he knows about the condition of the crash site, the weather, and his take on what most probably happened.

It is Known beyond peradventure that in the Fall in Northern Minnesota, icing conditions occur regularly.  Indeed, it is something that folks getting pilot's licenses in the area are required to emphasize in their flight training.  Here's what Reuters had to say about what is known about how the flight went:

"It took off at 9:37 a.m. from Minneapolis-St. Paul and at 9:48 was issued instructions to climb to 13,000 feet. At 10:01, air traffic control issued a clearance to land at Eveleth, and the pilot was given permission to descend to 4,000 feet. The pilot was also told that there was icing from 9,000 to 11,000 feet. At 10:10, the pilot began his descent. At 10:18, he was cleared for an east-west approach to the runway, and, according to radar, the plane was lined up with the runway."

OK -- that's the evidence on what the flight path looked like confirmed by radar evidence from the ground.

What Reuters did not mention is that there was light snowfall at ground level, and clouds descending all the way down to about 300 ft above the ground at the same time.  That's not really very far, if you are descending from altitude.  But the low-level information indicates strongly to xxxxx, whose experience is really pretty good, that in addition to the icing conditions at 9k-11k ft, there was another cloud lower down that also had icing conditions.  Why would that be true?  Because before snow falls, first there are water droplets in the cloud.  That's how snow starts to form.  And since it is also known that warm air -- the sort that would support water droplets -- tend to be lighter and therefore higher than colder air levels, the plane descended through another set of icing conditions somewhere between 2,000 ft and 300 ft.

So OK -- now we have the pilot descending on instruments down through a cloud, in the middle of which he really can't see much at all.  The co-pilot would be handling the aircraft and monitoring the instruments (which is the way this sort of thing usually works) and the pilot would have been straining his eyes through the cockpit front window, looking for the first visual sign of the ground, the runway and would guide the aircraft through the final minute or two of flight.

So -- keep in mind what's going on.  One of the two pilots is monitoring the IFR instruments as the plane flew through the cloud on line with the runway.  Essentially this means watching the airspeed indicator, the altimeter and the turn and bank indicator pretty much to the exclusion of anything else.  That person would Not be looking outside the airplane, since that's not how IFR landing approaches are done.

The other person, most probably the Pilot (the one in the left-hand seat) would not be looking at the instruments at all!  Eyes focusing out the window in front of an airplane tend to focus on Infinity, rather than at something that is at most three feet -- and probably less -- in front of his face.  So not only was the Pilot not focusing on the instrument panel, under normal conditions he couldn't even See the instruments clearly, since his eyes were searching for the ground.

The key to this discussion is the de-icing equipment.  At this season of the year, it needs to be turned on Full High for it to be useful, when coming down through a cloud.  Clouds are notoriously chaotic, when discussing their internal windflows.  Warm rising air columns sharply differentiate with cold, downward-moving air columns.  Those give rise to the familiar "bumping" sensations that affect the flight of aircraft, and are felt most especially in small aircraft.

If the de-icer were actually turned to Full High, the airplane isn't going to ice up at all!  A series of heating elements in the leading edges of the wings and control surfaces keep ice from forming and building up.

But if the de-icer were not turned on at all, or was set at something other than Full High on the descent, ice would build up on the wings within less than a minute!   And not in a small layer either -- several inches, more than likely.

Therein lies a specific sort of problem.  Aircraft fly very well at normal cruising speeds, such that they can handle some ice buildup because there remains sufficient lift for them to operate.  Under normal cruising speeds -- and this aircraft would have been at such a speed coming through the initial descent at between 9k and 11k ft -- it would have felt "heavy" in the hands of the pilot had there been an ice buildup then.  Under those circumstances, a pilot would simply only look out the window at the wing, turn the de-icer to Full High and execute a go-around to give the de-icer a chance to work.

But "icing conditions" reported is not quite the same sort of thing as "icing" -- that is, because the conditions may exist across a broad area, that is not the same thing as asserting the conditions do exist across the Entire Area.  It is possible, in fact probable, for an airplane to descend through a 2k ft level wherein icing conditions are reported without experiencing icing at all!  It all depends on the vertical movement of the air columns at the specific point where the descent was made through that level.

So even if there had been icing, the pilot surely would have noticed and taken the appropriate corrective action.  There was sufficient altitude, sufficient time and the engines were both working entirely properly so that could have been done.

Which explains why the descent went forward without incident, as reported by the local ATC tower.  Had there been any incident, a professional pilot would have reported it and taken appropriate correctivbe action, such as a go-around (aka a Missed Approach).

So, the plane is now below 9k ft, is lined up with the runway and descending on an IFR approach through a thick cloud, the bottom of which is at 300 ft.

Now we get to discuss an important concept known as Flight Minimums.  Even for an IFR approach into Eveleth, there really should be a higher Ceiling (the distance from the ground to the base of the cloud level) than 300 ft.  Indeed, at 300 ft, the pilot would have been well-advised not to try to undertake any landing at all!  But the pilot apparently did not and would not have known about the 300 ft ceiling over the airport.  The control tower and the ATC is not located there.  Indeed, the landing lights on the Eveleth runway are turned on for an approaching airplane by having the pilot click twice rapidly on his radio microphone, tuned to a frequency specific to the Eveleth airport.  (Many small-town airports in northern MN use that system.  I've flown into several over the years.)  And the pilot apparently did turn on the landing lights, using just that method.

OK -- now we have the aircraft descending through the clouds, the pilot has turned on the runway light to assist him in seeing the runway on his final approach.  The airplane continues to descend, and as is entirely appropriate, also decelerates to less than 100 mph -- probably even less than 90 mph.

In those conditions, the operational envelope of the airplane gets a lot smaller really fast!  Landings are the most critical of all flight operations, since the engines are at a lower power level, the lift generated by the wings is somewhat lower (though that is offset somewhat if the flaps are extended -- which is another sort of unanswered question at the moment), and if something does go wrong to spoil the lift on the wings, the only solution to that problem is to jam the throttles full forward, apply as much power as possible, and Leave the Flight Path and try to gain altitude for a go-around -- another approach.

If a pilot experienced icing on such a descent, the aircraft would instantly Get Heavy and unresponsive.  Lift would be lost from the wings, and it would lose altitude rapidly.  But the engines would still be running OK, and that would be the Only Thing keeping the plane from stalling and crashing into the ground.


If the pilot came out of the cloud at 300 ft in an icing condition (remember that 300 ft up is only as long as a football field -- so that isn't very much at all), he'd immediately see he was Very Low to the ground and still descending.  He'd want to go full thrust on the engines and start to climb.

OK -- that doesn't happen instantly.  Even if the engines went to full power, the plane would not stop descending for 5-10 seconds or so, and that would depend on the thickness of the ice on the wings and the initial rate of descent before power was applied.  So the operational envelope for the airplane is now Very Delicate Indeed!  At 300 ft, on a descent rate of 500 ft/minute, even under optimal conditions -- without any icing at all -- the airplane would lose another 50-100 ft of altitude even under the best conditions before anything useful started to happen.

But it gets complicated with another Known Fact -- the aircraft left the normal flight path and started to turn.  Aircraft in turns can, at some power settings, also lose altitude.  But as importantly, they change their flight "attitude" -- the angle with which they are interacting with the airstream across the wings.  That can lose lift as well.

In a climbing turn, with ice on the wings, and the aircraft engines still not entirely into Full Power mode (and I won't even mention the pitch angle of the propellors, just to keep things simple), one of the possible outcomes of that less-than-perfect situation is that the plane will Stall.

Stalling occurs when the otherwise smooth flow of air across the wing -- which is what induces Lift if you read about it in any encyclopedia -- is interrupted and becomes chaotic.  An ice layer on a wing can make that happen, just by changing the shape of the leading edge of the wing itself.  But a Stall can also be induced if the aircraft is put into a climb without sufficient engine power to pull it through the climb.  The effect is exacerbated when it's done during a turn simultaneously, since a turn at low speed can also have an effect of airflow across a wing surface.

Under the conditions noted, the pilot would quite probably (a) throttle up the engines, (b) initiate a climb, and (c) deviate from the flight path to initiate a go-around.  So lacking any information from within the aircraft, what it actually did as seen from the ground radar was exactly what any experienced pilot (xxxx in this case) would predict.

So, we're now back to the ice on the wings, just to complicate the scenario.  If the de-icer had not been turned to Full High, the ice would not have left the wings within the seconds during which the pilot was trying to fly out of the approach.  Power from the engines comes on incrementally, not all of a sudden, so at the initiation of the throttle up, the previously lowered power would still have been Low.  Perhaps too low to pull the aircraft through a climbing turn with just the force of the engines alone.

So the aircraft most likely Stalled.

What happens during a Stall?  In the usual cases, the aircraft is in a nose up attitude, but with no lift from the airflow over the wings, the nose suddenly drops, and the airplane goes straight down.

I've been in airplanes that were deliberately Stalled, just to see what the experience was like.  But I was at altitude with an experienced pilot, under conditions not conducive to icing at all.  Quite the experience!

For my two occasions, the nose dropped suddenly, and the airplane immediately lost about 800 ft in altitude.  During the altitude loss, airspeed increased commensurately, lift was restored to the wings, and the pilot could simply fly the airplane out of the Stall.  Fropm the ground, what you'd see is the airplane climb slightly, the nose suddenly drop straight down, the aircraft do a vertical dive, then level off at the bottom of the dive.  If you watch tapes of airshows where they do aerobatics, they do exactly that a lot.

But that assumes a fair amount of altitude.  If the plane is at 300-400 ft, stalls, and then drops, and it would take 600-800 ft of altitude before sufficient airspeed is regained to allow for normal flight, the aircraft simply runs out of altitude and crashes vertically into the ground, nose first.

If you look at the scene of the crash, the airplane came Straight Down, nose first.  Just exactly the sort of attitude with respect to the ground one would expect from a Stall, and a Stall was just exactly what one would expect if an aircraft iced up approaching the ground, then trying a climbing turn to get out of it.  The statements from the witnesses on the ground to what they saw and heard seem to jibe nicely with the explanation as well.  The plane, both agree, was Really Low, the engines were running normally, and a little while later, they heard the crash.  End of discussion.

You can confirm this scenario by speaking with any experienced pilot, but if you like I'll send along xxxxx phone number and you can talk with him directly.

So -- that scenario fits All the conditions required to see the sort of crash one would expect.  And it remains the simplest and most likely explanation.

Having said that, we may now consider three possibilities for some Plot to kill Wellstone:

Pilot suicide
Pilot illness
Suicide of someone else inside the plane

* Sabotage

Folks discussing this most often deal with an explosive device.  But there's no evidence of that, so no sense in discussing it.

Next method generally discussed is the disabling of some sort of flight control.  But if that were the case, the aircraft could have simply become uncontrollable at any point in the flight.  For someone involved in sabotage, the best place to have that occur would have been at altitude, the better to ensure the desired outcome.  This, however, took place right down near the ground, so that doesn't make any sense.

The next most likely would have been the disabling of some critical flight-related instrument or even the de-icer itself.  But there was no a priori assurance that would make any particular difference, since a potential saboteur would have no assurance that the conditions would arise under which a crash would occur at all.  It could easily have been the case that the final approach to the Eveleth airport would be clear entirely, and that disabling an instrument or system would have any effect at all.  The same would be true of trying to disable the throttle control as well.

So, sabotage doesn't really make a great deal of sense whatsoever.  The aircraft had flown directly to where it was going, the pilot indicated no in-flight emergency or unusual occurrence at all.  We may reasonably conclude that whatever happened, happened at somewhere around 300 ft or so, and two miles short of the Eveleth runway.

* Pilot suicide

I suspect that having a pilot deliberately fly the plane straight down into the ground is a tad too far-fetched to take seriously.  It requires a level of paranoia and sophistication that makes no sense at all to me.  Even if the pilot was an Arab, remember that Wellstone had just voted against the Iraq War now being pushed so fervently by Dubya et al.  And few other religous or political groups embrace personal suicide.

* Pilot illness

It is possible for a pilot to suffer a heart attack at any time during a descent.  That's why there's a co-pilot to control the plane, even in so exigent a circumstance.  No particular insight there.

* Suicide of someone else

Who?  We have Wellstone, his wife and daughter, pilot and co-pilot, and three campaign staffers.  Does that leave us with any particular reason to believe that one of those folks could or would have tried to crash the plane deliberately?  No -- it doesn't.  And even if they had tried to do so, the aircraft would More Than Likely have come down at an angle less acute than 90 degrees with the ground.  In which case, the crash site would show a glide path of the tops of trees cut off some distance away, then greater damage closer to the crash, wings shorn away well before the fuselage crashed into the ground and burned.  But what we got was physical evidence of a straight-down crash -- not one at a gentler angle.

Other than that, the discussion runs out of possible explanations rather quickly.

So the best information Presently Available from the radar information and physical evidence from the crash site is that somehow, and most probably because of icing at a low altitude, the aircraft stalled out, lost lift, and crashed straight down into the swamp.

Which leaves the obvious Political Ramifications, and those are worth discussing briefly as well.

There is no particular insight to be gained that the Republicans and/or the Coleman camp most probably were slightly relieved to have Wellstone die during the campaign.  The tracking and trending polling in the race indicated that the Undecideds were starting to make up their mind, and what had initially been a Close Race was turning into something where Wellstone was starting to pick up and widen a lead -- 6 pts or so, with the rate of change running in Wellstone's favor.

But Relief at such a happening does Not lead one to believe that either the GOP or the Coleman folks would somehow deliberately try to kill Wellstone.  He was, contrary to what folks have been saying in the news of late, not all that much of a Leader in the Senate.  He was respected, but as the "most liberal" Senator, his influence was sharply constrained because of that.  He was well-liked, certainly, but at a Personal Level, and hardly a political one.

To put it bluntly, Wellstone was hardly important enough for anyone to risk killing.  As strange as Politics is, it still has not become demonstrably That Strange.

I've been following the conspiracist theories on the Wellstone crash since it happened.  The first conspiracy hit the Net within three hours of the occurrence, and they have blossomed and expanded since then, doubling nearly every day.  But they rank right up there with the Strange Conspiracies that the Right-Wing Loonies have come up with on just about every death, every mishap and misfortune -- just the whole thing.

There's no particular reason to believe there's some Giant, Monolithic Plot out there, controlling Everything That Happens.  Just every now and then, aircraft crash, and people die.

That there might be those who are more pleased than sad at the death is not surprising.  I can think of several politicos I would not be displeased to depart this earthly plane either.  But I don't wanna kill them regardless.

The material you sent is all very interesting, but it requires such a suspension of disbelief to make it possible that it doesn't persuade me.  Just looking at the simple facts, I think the plane iced up, stalled and crashed at low altitude.  It's not the sort of crash that someone trying to do it would initiate deliberately.  There would be far better and more sure ways.

Which will not, of course, even slow down the conspiracists out there from explicating this alleged Plot endlessly.  And the more it is repeated, the more likely it is that those on the fringe will take it seriously. 

But remember this:  Not every unlikely thing that Could happen Does happen.

Sometimes, airplanes just crash.  Happens every day.