Death In The Mountains: How A Vip Jet Strayed

THEY KNEW THE WEATHER was dicey even before takeoff, but dignitaries were waiting in Dubrovnik. So Ron Brown and his entourage gamely took off in the same air force T-43A passenger jet that had ferried First Lady Hillary Clinton around the Balkans the week before. In Tuzla, Capt. Ashley Davis got a report showing light to moderate rain in the region. Whether that was overly rosy or the weather deteriorated quickly still isn't certain. But as the T-43A descended into Dubrovnik 45 minutes later, the city was facing its worst storm in 10 years. The cloud cover had dropped to less than 500 feet, with visibility just 100 yards--far below safety limits for the airfield nestled between the Adriatic and its rugged coast.

Why did Cilipi Airport remain open in such conditions? Did the pilots feel pressure from their high-ranking passengers to land on schedule? Those are just some of the questions investigators are asking, but definitive answers may be elusive. The T-43A, a military version of the Boeing 737, carried neither a cockpit voice recorder nor a flight-data recorder; the air force said installing them would have cost $7 million. The tragedy did appear unrelated to the unsolved crashes of two commercial 737s, in Pittsburgh and Colorado Springs, that still haunt U.S. investigators. But safety experts who scrambled to Dubrovnik ruled nothing out. The key question was who--Brown, the pilots, controllers, air force or diplomatic officials--let the plane fly on. As meteorologist Richard Cade put it, "Given the treacherous terrain, the primitive equipment and the weather conditions, you have to wonder why a VIP flight was approved."

This crash, like most air disasters, probably involved a series of missteps. Compounding the weather problems, Dubrovnik's airport uses World War II-style radio beacons to guide pilots in; its modern instrument-landing system was looted by Serbian troops in 1991. Brown's plane was apparently on course as it passed the first beacon, about 13 miles from the runway. But instead of flying straight toward a second beacon, it veered mysteriously north.

It's conceivable that lightning disrupted the beacon's signal. Or a strong wind off the sea could have blown the plane crosswise, even while its nose remained pointed toward the beacon. If so, the pilots may not have known they were straying farther from it, over the mountain ridges. But villagers in Brgat and Srebreno did hear engines unusually low and loud overhead. In Plat, Ana and Miho Duplica rushed outside in time to see the plane appear "like a ghost out of the clouds," said Ana. As it disappeared into clouds again, they heard engines gun, then a bang--and a dreadful silence.

Air force officials think the plane banked left in its final seconds, since its left wing tip struck St. John the Baptist peak--the crash site--first. If the pilots had been trying to abort the landing, standard procedure called for them to turn right instead, heading south over the sea. Instead, they probably heard the klaxon of the plane's ground-proximity warning system, even before they saw the 2,300-foot peak rushing toward them in the fog. Investigators at the scene found only the tail section intact; the front of the plane burned so thoroughly it left only a charred smudge in the shape of a fuselage on the rocky ground.

Lack of flight data has frustrated domestic 737 investigations, too. In both Pittsburgh and Colorado, the planes were landing routinely when they suddenly rolled and plunged to earth, killing everyone on board. Suspicions focus on a rudder malfunction, but because the black boxes were outdated, experts don't know if the 737, the world's most popular jetliner, has a freak design flaw, or if something else went wrong. Black boxes would not have saved Ron Brown's life last week. But they could have helped explain precisely how-and why-his plane went down.