A small commuter plane slammed into a field about 18 miles southwest of Detroit Metropolitan Airport while preparing to land in deteriorating weather, killing 29 people, officials said Thursday.
Comair Flight 3272, flying as a Delta Connection link from Cincinnati to Detroit, burst into flames on impact and shredded into shards of metal. Local television stations quoted witnesses who first reached the scene as saying none of the 26 passengers and three crew members could have survived, and only body parts remained.
A Federal Aviation Administration official said the pilots of the twin-engine Embraer 120 had only routine conversations with air traffic controllers during the flight and did not alert controllers of any problems before impact.
In an interview with WXYZ-TV in Detroit, a witness who said he was driving by the area just after the crash said that the plane appeared to have “bounced over the fields and hit a tree” and that he could identify the tail section and “maybe a wing.”
“There’s nothing you could do,” he said. “There was a fire and it was torn all to pieces. It was just pieces.”
The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched an investigative team to the site, led by board member John A. Hammerschmidt. The team will examine the wreckage, radar data, recorded air traffic control conversations, maintenance records nd other records to attempt to determine a cause. However, it is clear that the investigators will pay particular attention to weather data.
While initial speculation about accident causes is often wrong, pilots and other aviation professionals in the area noted that weather was terrible all afternoon. The FAA’s weather report at the time of the crash showed layers of broken clouds and overcast with light winds and 1-1/2-mile visibility in snow and mist.
Investigators will want to determine whether the plane had entered icing conditions, in which sheets of ice can form on wings, tail surfaces and propellers, robbing the plane of lift and making control difficult.
A longtime airline pilot, who did not want to be quoted, said weather conditions were ripe for icing. And three hours before the crash, the pilot’s car was covered with a quarter-inch of ice all over.
If the crash does involve icing, it will be a blow to the FAA’s program to prevent icing accidents, which grew out of the crash of an American Eagle ATR-72 turboprop aircraft at Roselawn, Ind., in October 1994, killing 68 people. That aircraft was in a holding pattern when ice began to form and eventually caused it to roll and dive into a farm field.