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Butte coroner: Plane crash autopsy still not done


April 28, 2009

MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer BILLINGS

The coroner investigating a Butte plane crash that killed 14 people last month said he is still awaiting results from an autopsy that could determine if the pilot suffered a medical emergency. Butte Coroner Lee LaBreche said results are pending on toxicology tests that could show if drugs, alcohol or medication played a role in the crash. He said he will not release further details of the autopsy done through the state crime lab in Missoula until the tests are completed. "They don't want to release any preliminary report. They want to release the report when it's done," LaBreche said of state forensic investigators. He added that the tests were standard procedure, and that there was no reason to suspect drugs or alcohol played a role. Federal investigators have developed no leading theory on what brought down the privately operated Pilatus PC-12 as it approached the runway at Butte's airport on the afternoon o f Ma r c h 2 2 , s a i d Na t i o n a l Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway. "We're still looking at everything," H o l l o w a y said. The plane, carrying three California families en route to a weeklong ski holiday, was piloted by Ellison "Buddy" Summerfield, 65, a former military pilot with decades of experience. Originally destined for Bozeman, Mont., the flight diverted to Butte about a half hour before it nose-dived into a cemetery next to the city's airport. All aboard were killed, including seven children under the age of 10. Ice on the plane's wings, overloading, mechanical problems and a medical emergency have been mentioned as possibilities. Complicating the investigation, the plane lacked the "black box" that is required on commercial airliners to record cockpit conversations and flight instrument data. Without that information, federal investigators have been left to work with eyewitness accounts, the wreckage of the plane and a few short radio exchanges between the pilot and air traffic controllers. N TS B Ac t i n g C h a i rma n Mark Rosenker pointed to the Butte crash recently as an example of why the aircraft industry needs to develop lightweight flight recorders suitable for small private planes. "Our examination of what was left of the airplane did not reveal any obvious pre-impact malfunctions," Rosenker said during a recent speech to the Wichita Aero Club. "The recorders would have enabled us to quickly determine information about the accident scenario, including precise locations, altitudes, headings, airspeeds and pilot actions."


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