You can hear terror in the voice of the captain
on US Airways Express flight 5481.
"We have an emergency in the cockpit for Air Midwest 5481,"
she said on a cockpit voice recorder tape.
The plane, operated by Air Midwest, crashed in Charlotte in
January 2003, killing all 21 people on board.
"It came own nose first into a fireball," said Tracy Right,
who saw the crash.
Flight 5481 was headed to Greenville-Spartanburg, South
Carolina, then to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. The NTSB
blamed the crash, in part, on an outsourced maintenance company
in Huntington, West Virginia. Two nights before the crash, a
mechanic who had never worked on that kind of plane made a major
mistake. He incorrectly rigged critical cables that control the
Just last week, the president of Air Midwest, Greg Stephens,
apologized to the people who lost loved ones in the crash.
"We are truly sorry and regret and apologize to everyone
affected by this tragedy," he said.
Ernie Kiss has spent his career as an airline mechanic. Now
he's in charged of safety at the nation's largest mechanics
union. When Steve Daniels met him at RDU International Airport,
he told Eyewitness News what his union members are seeing on the
"Approximately 84 to 90 percent of our technicians have seen
mistakes made at third-party vendors," Kiss said. "We're having
to re-work maintenance that is farmed out, and it's costing the
carrier more to farm out than if we did it in house to start
In fact, our Eyewitness News investigation is uncovering
disturbing safety issues at a TIMCO in Greensboro. United
Airlines, Delta Airlines, Fed Ex and America West all outsourced
maintenance work to TIMCO.
A source showed us
pictures of a panel above the wing that flew off a United
Airlines Boeing 757 on a flight leaving TIMCO.
The source says workers at TIMCO forgot to screw in panels
during a maintenance overhaul. Another United plane – a
wide-body Boeing 767 – also had serious safety problems after it
left TIMCO, according to our source and documents obtained by
A panel under the wing nearly ripped off in flight. Cockpit
warning lights indicated repeated problems with the slats and
flaps on the wings. The cockpit control sticks were not working
properly, and the emergency evacuation lighting system wasn't
"It sounds like it's a total quality management problem,
there at TIMCO with their quality assurance and their lack of
training," Kiss said.
We also obtained documents revealing problems on another
United Boeing 767, which our source says was at TIMCO in
December 2003. Pilots reported a series of cockpit warnings
connected to the slats and flaps on the wings. Our source says
another 767 had problems with the emergency evacuation lighting
after going to TIMCO last October.
Back in 2001, the FAA fined United Airlines for work that
TIMCO did on a Boeing 737. The report said TIMCO "failed to
properly re-install fuel system components, rendering the
TIMCO would not answer our questions about the documents we
obtained. They did release a statement saying TIMCO is an
industry leader in safety:
"In fact, our safety standards surpass those required by
both the FAA and commercial airlines. TIMCO performs
millions of maintenance tasks annually. Just like airline
maintenance operations, we are not immune to an infrequent
service issue. If there are service issues, we are quick to
investigate to determine the root cause and to implement
The statement also said TIMCO has an experienced, well-trained
During our investigation, we discovered the NTSB has blamed
maintenance outsourcing at other companies in several other
crashes, including the ValuJet crash in Miami in 1996 and the
crash of an Emery cargo plane in Sacramento, Calif., in February
"It doesn't cross anybody's mind that these things are being
maintained by unlicensed technicians at a third-party vendor,"
Ernie Kiss said. "I don't think the American flying public knows
Greg Stephens, the man whose company operated the US Airways
Express flight that crashed in Charlotte, says his airline has
learned some tough lessons.
"We have taken substantial measures to prevent similar
accidents and incidents in the future, so that your losses will
not have been suffered in vain," he said. Stephens also said his
company is following all of the NTSB safety recommendations that
emerged from the crash investigation.
United Airlines says in a statement:
"We have worked cooperatively with TIMCO for maintenance
work for years. At no time has the safety of United's
passengers, employees or aircraft ever been compromised.
Safety -- the cornerstone of United's business -- is the
company's number one priority. Outsourced and internal
maintenance operations are in strict compliance with United
Airlines' FAA-approved maintenance program and all
applicable Federal Aviation Regulations. FAA safety
inspectors and United's own Quality Assurance division also
provide additional oversight to our maintenance programs."