My day job is in the crane and rigging industry here in Maine. We get to see some cool things and be part of some cool jobs that combine work and my aviation passion. Like replacing the tail on a KC-135 refueling tanker, loading an Antonov AN-124 or unloading an IL-76. However, never did I imagine what would take place in March of 2019.
On Monday March 4th, United Express flight 4933 operated by Commutair experienced a hard landing on arrival at Presque Isle International Airport. Commutair operates the essential air service route for United Airlines to and from Presque Isle.The flight was carrying 31 passengers and crew from Newark’s Liberty International Airport when the incident happened.
Looking at FlightAware tracking at the time, the flight made 2 attempts to land at the airport. Following the same flight path in both attempts, they made a go around on the first attempt due to snowy conditions. On the second attempt, the flight made a landing in the infield of the airport, well off the runway.
Miraculously there were only minor injuries. However, had there not been major snowpack in the infield area, the outcome may have been deadly.
The Phone Call
Mid morning on Tuesday the 5th I received a phone call from a crane and rigging company in New Jersey that we had done work with in the past, asking for 2 cranes to go to Presque Isle. They were still working out logistics and details, but they wanted to know if we had 2 that were available to be there the next morning. I said yes and the guy said he would call me back once he had more details, but to be ready to leave first thing the next morning.
They called back just before we left the office for the day and said to be in Presque Isle Wednesday morning. Their crews would be leaving from New Jersey that night and be at the airport late morning on Wednesday the 5th.
We readied our two Grove TMS900E 90 ton hydraulic truck cranes and headed out the next morning for Presque Isle.
Hurry Up and Wait
The next morning we struck out with 2 cranes and 2 pickups for the almost 3 hour drive to Presque Isle. We got to the airport and met up with the crews we would be working with. The owner of J. Supor and Son, himself was there and greeted us. Jersey’s Finest on their trucks, Joe and his team performed the recovery of the Miracle on the Hudson plant that landed in the Hudson along with many other airliner recoveries. This isn’t exactly an Airbus, but it still posed challenges. They had a former race car team transporter trailer that has everything they’ll need as far as rigging, spreader bars, slings and anything else you can think of, including coffee makers.
Basically it was going to be a game of hurry up and wait until the NTSB and FAA finished their investigation and released the scene to us. Without knowing when that was, we needed to be there and ready to go once they finished so the airport could be reopened.
When the cranes arrived we set up and assembled the self propelled modular transporter(SPMT) system in which the plane, when released, would be hoisted onto and transported to a hangar for further investigation by the authorities. A SPMT is essentially a trailer with a bunch of axle lines underneath it that can raise up and down, turn left and right and move without the need of a truck pulling it. These are often used to transport large loads such as pressure vessels, transformers and other larger loads that can’t be hauled on a regular trailer. multiply lines can be assembled together for extremely long and/or heavy loads.
Being that it was March, it’s not exactly warm in Presque Isle. In fact, it’s frigid. We realized we needed to find a place to either plug the block heaters in or find a shop to put the cranes inside for the night or the next morning would be a treat trying to get them running.
Fortunately the team at Presque Isle was more than accommodating and allowed us to park them inside some hangars overnight.
Thursday morning comes and we are hopeful that the scene will be released so we can get out there and get the plane moved. To this point, we hadn’t been allowed inside the gate. A lot of time was spent hanging out inside the terminal, running to Tim Horton’s for coffee and wondering if the temperatures would get above 0.
Eventually we got word that the FAA was sending an aircraft up to test the ILS system and once that was done we could take the field. 2 hours later the Beechcraft Super King Air arrived and made several passes. After about a half hour they left and we were good to go.
The airport had to remove several feet of snow for us to get in and setup. The aircraft recovery team from J.Supor & Son form New Jersey placed several steel plates on the ground because the snow had insulated the ground and there wasn’t any frost to support the cranes and other equipment, including the environmental pump trucks that were pumping the jet fuel out of the aircraft. After that we got set up and ready to go.
The plan was to use the 2 cranes to pick the plane up, pivot it 90 degrees and set it down on the SPMT. There were 2 slings basketed under the aircraft at points directed by the United Airlines operations official overseeing the operation.
Picking up the aircraft, it weighed a little more than expected and we couldn’t get it all the way to the SPMT position so we had to pick, set it down, reposition 1 of the cranes and then pick it up again and set it on the SMPT. As darkness hit, the aircraft was secured to the SPMT and we disassembled the cranes and moved off the airfield. The following morning the SPMT made the trip to the FBO where the aircraft was offloaded inside for further investigation.
The NTSB released their findings in July of 2022. They found that on the initial approach the crew executed a go-around as they weren’t able to establish the runway, they saw snow and a structure with an antenna but no runway.
After the go-around the first officer asked the captain if she saw the lights on the runway. She stated that she had seen them but that it was really white.
When the attempted to land a second time, they met the decision altitude and the captain stated she saw the runway. As the aircraft ventured below 100 feet AGL, the captain and first officer both stated they didn’t know what they were seeing, but didn’t call for another go-around.
The aircraft landed in the snowy infield area between the runway and parallel taxiway. Both had misjudged the snow covered runway. The runway impacted the ground before the first officer could see what was going on. Their instruments in the cockpit showed the aircraft was left of the ILS approach course.
One of the pilots and 2 passengers received minor injuries.
The NTSB determined the cause of the accident was due to the flight crew’s decision to descend below the decision altitude when they hadn’t been able to identify the runway. Adding to that, the first officer was fatigued and the localizer being out of calibration, which 6 other pilots had experienced, but didn’t report the problem.
Miraculously, there was plenty of snow blown into the infield from runway clearing to soften the landing of the aircraft. The rear main landing gear were blown off of the aircraft, one lodged in the engine and the front gear was bent backwards.