Originally created 02/28/97

Ex-astronaut says 2 pilots not at fault



COLUMBIA - Former Apollo 12 astronaut Charles Conrad on Thursday defended the actions of USAir Flight 1016's pilots, saying he probably would have made the same decisions before the fatal crash.

"The weather conditions were such that day that the Empire State Building could've been out there ... and you wouldn't have seen it," Mr. Conrad said.

The DC-9 crashed in July 1994 in a thunderstorm near Charlotte, N.C., killing 37 people and injuring 20 others. The flight originated in Columbia, and most of the victims were from South Carolina.

A federal safety board determined a strong gust called a microburst drove the plane into the ground.

Survivors and victims' families sued USAir, saying the pilots were negligent for trying to land in the storm. The airline blames the air traffic controllers, saying they didn't warn the crew about the bad weather.

The federal government has acknowledged air traffic controllers were partly to blame and reached a settlement with USAir last May. The amount has not been made public.

"The crew made mistakes, but in my opinion, those mistakes in no way related to the accident," Mr. Conrad said.

During cross-examination, the victims' lawyer David Rapoport pointed out that Mr. Conrad had never been pilot-in-command of a major commercial airline with passengers aboard.

He also led Mr. Conrad through a series of scenarios that help pilots learn to identify and react to wind shear and microbursts.

Mr. Rapoport said USAir does not use those tests to train its pilots.

The microburst that hit Flight 1016 was unusual and it happened so quickly that even the on-board wind-shear alert system did not go off, Mr. Conrad said.

Also Thursday, USAir attorneys withdrew First Officer James Hayes as a witness without explanation. Mr. Hayes was flying the DC-9 when it crashed.

The airline's lawyers also withdrew their weather expert.

Flight 1016 Capt. Michael Greenlee was USAir's first witness, on Feb. 11. Mr. Greenlee said he and Mr. Hayes made the best decisions they could, given what little weather information the air traffic controllers supplied.

Mr. Rapoport said he was astounded by USAir's decision to withdraw Mr. Hayes and predicted the trial would end sooner than expected.

"It's our position that this case is all about piloting and weather," Mr. Rapoport said. "I would've thought these were the two most important witnesses."