March 23, 2009 -- The plane that crashed in Montana Sunday killing 14 people was overloaded, did not have a cockpit voice recorder or flight data recorder and wasn't certified to carry commercial passengers, investigators confirmed today.
National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Mark Rosenker emphasized at a briefing Monday morning that there is unlikely to be a quick answer as to what caused the fatal crash.
The Pilatus PC-12, a high-end, single-engine turbo prop, was flying from Oroville, Calif., Sunday morning on a 2½-hour flight to Bozeman, Mont. But instead of reaching its final destination, the plane diverted to Butte -- about 85 miles northwest of Bozeman -- where it crashed into a cemetery 500 feet short of the runway at the Bert Mooney Airport, killing everyone onboard.
There was no radio call made by the pilot, and it remains unclear whether an emergency situation led the pilot to land in Butte. Officials said Butte's airport doesn't have radar control, and that, combined with the lack of a black box and survivors, could make this investigation particularly challenging.
Officials confirmed that the plane was carrying three extra passengers than it is supposed to when it crashed.
The maximum capacity for the Pilatus PC-12 is two seats in the cockpit and nine in the cabin, totaling 11, but federal investigators said there were 14 people on the flight, seven of them children. One of those adults was the pilot, who remains unidentified.
Rosenker said the NTSB will have to figure out how and why there were an additional three people on the plane. He added that there is no reason to believe anything came off the plane.
ABC News' aviation consultant John Nance said on "Good Morning America" that the number of people onboard should be the key concern.
"One of the things here that is most extant, and the biggest question, is why were there so many human beings on this airplane," he said. "You can't just stuff as many folks on an airplane as you can physically put them in there."
Nance said the Pilatus PC-12 is a good, resilient aircraft but that too many people on this type of a plane creates not only a weight problem but a balance problem as well.
"The fact that you've got children onboard, they may see something out of the airplane at the last minute. People unstrap their seat belts, get up and move, and your center of gravity could shift," Nance said. "When you overstuff a number of people on an airplane, you have the potential for getting it outside what we call the envelope, of the center of gravity."
The NTSB will compute the weight of the fuel, passengers, luggage and any cargo. All four points of the aircraft, including the nose, both wings and the tail, have been recovered.
The NTSB does not know why the plane diverted to Butte, and there was no communication from the pilot that indicated any problem.
According to Nance, the stop in Butte could very well have been made to refuel or to give passengers a bathroom break.
Witnesses who saw the plane overhead immediately knew something was terribly wrong.
"I heard the engine, and I look up to see it spinning and going into a nose dive," Kenny Gulick, who witnessed the crash, told "Good Morning America." "It was spinning. Normally, it would be at 90 degrees. It was at 180 degrees. ... The pitch of the nose tried to move up slowly, but it was too close to the ground."
Although unconfirmed, officials said the families were headed to Montana for a ski trip.
Butte resident Martha Guidoni and her husband raced to the scene when they witnessed the plane spiral down.
"It looked like a meteorite hit the ground. ... I've never seen anything so scary in my life," she said.
Too Many Passengers?
During a news conference Sunday evening, NTSB officials said they had few details about the crash.
"We are just beginning our investigation," board investigator Kristi Dunks said. "We don't have a lot of information at this time. ... Certain family members were contacted. ... At this point, I don't have an exact number."
The single-engine plane was manufactured in 2001 and owned by Eagle Cap Leasing Inc., based in Enterprise, Ore.
It remains unclear whether there was a second pilot onboard. According to Nance, this plane can be flown by only one pilot, and the identity of that person is unknown so far. There is some speculation that it was the owner of the aircraft.
However, because of a lack of flight recorders on board, early details are expected to remain scanty.
"There are a lot of questions, and there are answers that we don't have," Nance said.
Weight and balance seem to be key factors so far, but further investigation could uncover more things in play.
Trip Turns Tragic
Half of the passengers who died were children. Among the passengers was a family of five parents and three toddler-age children.
Tom Hagler, owner of Table Mountain Aviation in Oroville, greeted the group in California.
"They were young, about 6 to 10 years old, and at least a couple of adults and the pilot," he said.
The last fatal plane crash that occured was in February, when a Continental Airlines plane fell on a house in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 passengers onboard.
Across the world, another plane crash killed two people.
A FedEx cargo plane crashed in Tokyo, killing an American pilot and co-pilot.