On a cold January morning in 2003, US Airways Express Flight 5481 stalled during takeoff and crashed into a hangar at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, killing all 21 people aboard.
A decade later, the wreckage has been cleared and millions of dollars in settlement money has been paid, but loved ones who gathered for a memorial ceremony at the airport on Tuesday said the pain is still palpable.
We still miss them every single day, said Janet Albury, who lost three family members in the crash. God has done a lot in the last decade, but some days, its still difficult.
As the mourners spoke of the dead, they paused to avoid being drowned out by the intermittent sounds of airplanes taking off.
January 8, 2003, is a day that none of us family and friends will ever forget, said Capt. Josh Bosley, whose cousin planned to marry the planes pilot, Katie Leslie.
Amid the questions and sorrow that followed the crash, something constructive emerged: The tragedy focused more attention on growing airline maintenance problems.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators concluded the plane was doomed by sloppy maintenance, improper weight distribution and poor federal safety oversight.
Crash spurs new scrutiny
The problems began Jan. 6, 2003, when a contract mechanic at a West Virginia maintenance hangar was asked to adjust cables that helped control the pitch of a Beech 1900D. The mechanic had never done the job on that type of plane. And with his trainers approval, he skipped key steps in the maintenance manual.
Two days later, loaded with passengers and bags, the tail-heavy plane took off at an unusually sharp angle. Pilots Leslie and Jonathan Gibbs were unable to push the planes nose down. The elevator, a tail flap that helps control the planes pitch, could move downward only half the usual amount because of the mistakes made in West Virginia, the investigators found. The plane stalled at 1,100 feet.
After the crash, an Observer investigation found a pattern of shortcomings in the way commercial planes are maintained and inspected. At the time, U.S. airlines were spending less to maintain planes; mechanics were checking them less often; and federal oversight had not kept up with the trend of outsourcing more repair work.
Maintenance manuals changed
The crash and its aftermath prompted changes.
Maintenance manuals that contributed to two fatal crashes were reworked. Mechanics labor unions took new steps to prevent maintenance errors. And the Federal Aviation Administration hired two experts to study why maintenance mistakes happen and how to prevent them. Their work has helped the FAA set safety priorities.
U.S. airlines have been on a safety streak, with no fatal crashes since early 2009. Former NTSB member John Goglia attributes some of that to the retirement of older planes.
I think the industry is paying more attention than they have in the past, said Goglia, a former airline mechanic. But I think the FAA, for a whole lot of reasons, has not risen to where they need to be.
Goglia points to the FAAs recent decision to change its interpretation of a federal rule designed to combat mechanic fatigue. The agency had previously said airline mechanics should be given at least one day off each week, but now says that employers can comply by giving mechanics equivalent time, such as four days off for every four weeks worked.
The FAA said that over 10 years, it has reduced the risk of fatal accidents in commercial aviation by 83 percent and intends to reduce it by an additional 50 percent by 2025.
The agency said it has developed programs to help airlines and repair stations train their mechanics. One of those tools helps mechanics avoid mistakes commonly caused by problems such as fatigue and poor communication.
The nations impressive safety record is a direct result of an unwavering commitment by government and industry to work together to monitor data and identify trends to prevent accidents, the FAA said in a statement.
We love you
On Tuesday, mourners left red, yellow and white roses at the memorial on Hangar Road, which lists the names of those killed aboard Flight 5481.
The names are listed in alphabetical order, so the three Alburys names are first. Janet Albury lost her husband, Robin; her 12-year-old daughter, Caitlin; and her brother-in-law, Nicholas.
The family ran a hardware store in Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas. Before the crash, Janet Albury usually traveled with her husband to conventions. But on the 2003 trip to a show in Greenville, S.C., Caitlin asked to go in her mothers place.
It was the first time she had left the Bahamas without her mother.
On the white wall behind the memorial, Janet Albury wrote a message to her family: We love you and miss you. And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God and to those who are called according to his will.
Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.
Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email email@example.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.Read moreRead less