Tower recording shows fuel concerns before plane crash
Someone on board the Piper PA-31 medical plane that crashed in Riverwoods radioed air traffic controllers claiming the plane was out of fuel and coasting, a control tower audio recording shows.
The call to the Chicago-area Terminal Radar Approach Control in Elgin declared an emergency just before the plane crashed Monday night near Portwine Road, according to audio recordings.
The recording obtained by the Daily Herald on Wednesday was part of a much larger file at liveATC.net, a forum for people interested in listening to live recordings of air traffic controllers and airplanes in cities across the United States.
The pilot — or a pilot-rated passenger who may have been manning the radio — told an air traffic controller the plane was out of fuel and unable to make it to Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling.
In the audio recording, a voice on the plane is heard telling a controller, "We are declaring an emergency."
The controller asks: "Lifeguard 773" — the plane's call sign — "Do you still want to land at Palwaukee?"
A different voice on the plane replied: "Unable. We are out of fuel and we are coasting."
That recording could help investigators determine what caused the medical transport airplane to crash, killing the pilot and two passengers and injuring two others.
Chief among the National Traffic Safety Board's concerns are the weather, the pilot's background and the history of the aircraft. However, questions also have been raised about whether the twin-engine plane had enough fuel to safely complete its journey.
Two men — the pilot-rated passenger and a medic — survived the crash and are patients at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville. Both suffered nonlife threatening injuries, officials said.
Killed in the crash were pilot William Didier, 58, of Cedar Grove, Wis., and passengers John W. Bialek, 80, and his wife, Ilomae L. Bialek, 75, both of Streamwood.
The plane was heading to Chicago Executive Airport from West Palm Beach, Fla., where the couple also has a home.
John Bialek was aboard as a patient, authorities said.
Didier and Ilomae Bialek were pronounced dead on the scene. John Bialek died en route to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, officials said.
NTSB air safety investigator Ed Malinowski spent Tuesday at the crash site, taking photos and searching for clues that would explain why the plane crashed about five miles north of the airport.
It was headed southeast when it hit tall trees between two homes and then the ground, Malinowski said.
The pilot reported being low on fuel before the crash, Malinowski said, and there was no explosion when the plane crashed.
A small fire was kept in check until firefighters arrived and quickly extinguished the flames. Fire officials said the blaze would have been much worse had there been fuel on the ground.
The plane is owned by Trans North Aviation Ltd., an air transportation company that operates bases at Chicago, Eagle River and Green Bay, Wis., and Charleston, S.C.
The plane had stopped in Jessup, Ga., and took on 165 gallons of fuel, Malinowski said. That model Piper carries up to 182 gallons of fuel.
The plane did not have a flight data recorder, a device often called a black box, Malinowski said.
A typical airplane crash investigation takes six months to a year to complete, Malinowski said. A preliminary report could be ready in a week, he said.
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