Report on cause of Newry plane crash months away

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NEWRY – An investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday it could be another five months before the final cause is known of the June 22 plane crash into Barker Mountain which killed three Lewiston High School students and a young pilot.

Due to the complexity of the Newry accident, Todd Gunther, speaking by phone in Ashburn, Va., said investigators are continuing to track leads and a variety of factors that may have played a role in the accident.

They have to be meticulous, he added, because the final findings could be used by the aerospace industry to make changes in aircraft or flight policies.

In fatal plane crash investigations, final reports normally take from nine months to a year to complete, Gunther said. Then, 30 to 60 days later, the NTSB will issue a probable cause brief.

Killed in the crash were Nicholas Babcock, 17, Teisha Loesberg, 16, Shannon Fortier, 15, and pilot William “Charlie” Weir, 24.

According to a July 6 preliminary report, the 1979 Cessna 172N that Weir was flying, had its wing flaps down 10 degrees and its throttle full open at the time of the accident.

On June 22, Weir, who worked for Twin Cities Air Service in Auburn, was giving an introductory flying lesson to three Lewiston High School teens as part of a summer camp program run by the school’s Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Prior to the crash, the plane had taken off from Bethel Regional Airport and appeared to be returning at about 2:10 p.m. when something suddenly went wrong.

According to the report, the Cessna’s engine was still running and the propeller spinning when it crashed through trees into the mountainside at 2,070 feet elevation. The report also stated that the plane’s cabin was gutted by fire, and, that the crash was so sudden that no one unlocked the cabin doors.

A 100-hour inspection of the plane had been completed the day before the crash.

Despite the tragic accident, no changes have been made in policy for the Bethel airport or the Junior ROTC program at Lewiston High.

“From the beginning, there’s been no indication that the airport’s policies or operation contributed to the crash,” Bethel Town Manager Scott Cole said Friday.

Weir did not refuel the plane at Bethel, which is an unmanned facility, meaning it doesn’t have a flight tower.

“Bethel is a general aviation airport where visual flight rules apply, underlying the premise that the VFR burden is entirely on the pilot to understand the conditions within which he or she operates, like, for example, weather, terrain, or atmospheric conditions,” Cole said.

Lt. Col. Robert Meyer, director of the JROTC at Lewiston High, said Friday that they haven’t made any formal changes, although, they did suspend flying until the NTSB investigation is complete.

But, students did fly on a KC-135 refueling tanker with the Bangor Air National Guard in 2006 to satisfy the flight requirement of the Science of Flight component of the program, Meyer said.

The crash in Newry last summer was the first fatal accident for the Air Force’s JROTC program nationwide, and, depending on the investigation’s outcome, policy changes may be made to the program nationwide, Meyer said.

“Headquarters had e-mailed they were going to review the whole program,” he added.

He also said local policy changes for the program may be implemented based on the investigation’s finding. There is some discussion that rather than use commercial flight instructors the program would instead use pilots with the Civilian Air Patrol, Meyer said. Currently, pilots who take students on flights must be certified flight instructors, which Weir was.

Weir, according to the preliminary NTSB report, also had a commercial pilot certificate and was rated to fly single- and multi-engine planes, as well as to fly by instruments.

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