In episode 99 of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, we explore the amazing story of Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA) Flight 529. On August 21, 1995, Flight 529 was flying over the Georgia countryside when its left propellor blades snapped and disrupted all power to the left engine, causing the plane to yaw left and descend at a high speed. Despite not having full control over the aircraft, Captain Ed Gannaway and First Officer Matt Warmerdam used every ounce of skill and might to keep the plane airborne for as long as possible, until they couldn’t. After nine minutes of fighting to keep the plane level and flying, Flight 529, with 26 passengers and 3 crew, crash landed in a forest before coming to rest in a field outside Burwell, GA. Thanks to the heroic feat of flying by the pilots, and the quick efforts of flight attendant Robin Fech, 20 people were spared their lives. Unfortunately, many of those who perished, including the captain, died due to the onboard, post-crash fire. The NTSB investigation determined that the probable cause of the crash of Flight 529 was the in-flight fatigue fracture and separation of a propeller blade resulting in distortion of the left engine, causing excessive drag, loss of wing lift, and reduced directional control of the airplane. The fracture was caused by a fatigue crack from multiple corrosion pits that were not discovered by propellor manufacturer Hamilton Standard because of inadequate and ineffective corporate inspection and repair techniques, training, documentation, and communications. This crash ultimately led to the redesign of propellor blades for the Embraer Brasilia and was the last crash of a Brasilia aircraft to be caused by propellor blade failure.
Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529 Takes Off Without Incident for Gulfport, MS with 26 Passengers and 3 Crew
It’s August 21, 1995, and 26 passengers board Atlantic Southeast Airlines (or ASA as we will refer to the airline) Flight 529 from Atlanta, Georgia, to Gulfport, MS. This quick 86-minute flight is routine for many of the passengers who take this flight regularly as a way to commute for business. Among the 26 people, there are six engineers, two deputy sheriffs, a minister, two Air Force personnel, and an aspiring flight attendant. Even though the flight has been delayed already by thirty minutes, passengers are pleased when the captain finally announces that at 12:23 PM local time, Flight 529 would takeoff.
Commanding the aircraft this day is Captain Ed Gannaway, age 45, who is a skilled pilot with almost 10,000 total hours of flying experience, including over 7,000 flight hours in the Embraer Brasilia, which is the plane they are flying today. The captain is a lifelong flyer and even comes from a family of pilots. Joining him in the cockpit is the 28-year-old first officer, Matt Warmerdam, who has been with the airline since April of that year and has logged a total almost 2,000 flight hours (including more than 300 hours in the Embraer Brasilia). As flight crews do who work for smaller airlines, this captain and first officer have been flying together off and on for about four months now and have formed a good working relationship. The one cabin crew member, a flight attendant, joins this crew today, and she is 37-year-old Robin Fech, who has been with ASA for about two years.
Two things before we move on. First, this is the first time we have featured a story about a plane belonging to the fleet owned by Atlantic Southeast Airlines. ASA is based on Georgia and at the time of this story, had a fleet of 83 turbo prop aircraft, most of which were the Embraer Brasilia. ASA was a typical regional airline that focused on shorter commuter routes, and it eventually merged into ExpressJet in 2011.
The second thing to mention is the aircraft that is Flight 529. The Brasilia (as it was more commonly called) attracted immediate interest from many regional airlines when it first was produced, particularly in the US. The aircraft size, its top speed of 378 mph (or 608 kph), and flight ceiling of 24,000 feet (7,315 m) allowed faster and more direct services around the US and Europe, compared to similar aircraft. The first aircraft entered service with ASA in October 1985.
Back in the sky following an uneventful takeoff, Flight 529 is ascending toward its cruising altitude. But, it will never reach 24,000 feet. Just twenty minutes after takeoff, and while passing through 18,100 feet altitude (or 5,516 m), a sound erupts throughout the entire plane – it has been described as sounding like someone taking a baseball and hitting an aluminum garbage can as hard as they could over and over. Almost immediately, the airplane rolls to the right, pitches down, and begins to descend.
Flight 529’s Propellor Blades Snap and Disrupt Engine Power, Causing Plane to Yaw and Descend
In the cabin, passengers are shaken at the loud bang they have just heard, and many look out the windows along the left side of the plane, the direction from which the sound came. They can see several blades from the left propeller wedged against the front of the left wing, and it looks like fluid is coming out of the back part of the wing. More disturbingly, the plane’s left engine is also dangling precariously. And to make things worse, not only are passengers experiencing a bumpy ride and the falling sensation that comes from the fast descent rate, but oil from the plane’s left engine seeps into the cabin through the air conditioning system, making the cabin slightly smoky.
In the cockpit, the sounds of several chimes fill the air as Captain Gannaway takes control of the plane. The plane is still descending – and fast – it is falling 5200 feet (or 1,584 m) per minute, or 90 feet (or 27 m) every second.
After quickly scanning all the alerts and seeing the warning lights flashing, the flight crew knows there is a problem with the left engine. But they don’t know the real damage to the engine – all they can tell is that they have lost left engine power. So, they try to adjust the propeller blades to improve the plane’s lift. But that attempt doesn’t work, and now, the left engine is on fire, and they must shut it down.
Captain Gannaway is working desperately to try and get the plane flying level, but no matter what he does, the plane keeps pulling to the left. He pushes hard to the right, trying to counter the pull by using the plane’s rudders and his control column. Because of the extreme pulling force coming from the plane, Captain Gannaway shouts to his first officer, “I can’t hold this thing. Help me hold it!” First Officer Warmerdam joins Captain Gannaway in his efforts to hold the plane level. If either of them lets go of the controls and stops pushing the rudder down and all the way to the right, the plane would most certainly flip all the way over onto its side. Like all aircraft, the Brasilia was designed to fly on one engine. However, unknown to the flight crew, because the propellers were lodged into the wing and the dangling engine created drag over that same wing, the plane continued to lose altitude rapidly.
Pilots of Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529 Try to Maintain Altitude While Flight Attendant Prepares Passengers for Emergency Landing
Captain Gannaway declares an emergency to air traffic control (or ATC) and requests to divert back to Atlanta. The airport is still 58 miles (or 93 km) away.
In the cockpit, the pilots’ efforts have begun to make a small payoff: they have slowed the plane’s descent (as they are now at 14,500 feet or 4,419 m), but not halt it completely. And, the plane is actually going faster now, racing upwards to 224 mph (or 360 kph).
After making a left turn to head back toward the airport in Atlanta, the plane begins its high-speed descent again. Experimenting with several controls, Captain Gannaway again gets the nose to pitch up, slowing the speed of the aircraft as they sail toward 11,400 feet (or 3,474 m).
Eventually First Officer Warmerdam informs flight attendant Robin Fech that they would be making an emergency landing and tells her to “brief the passengers.” As the plane continues its uncontrolled descent, Robin used the intercom system to talk to her passengers. She told them they had an engine problem, which by now most of them already knew by looking out of the window, and that they would be returning to Atlanta. She reassured everyone that the plane could fly on one engine, but they would need to prepare for an emergency landing ‘just in case.’ Obviously, she had no idea just how bad the situation really was.
But, as a trained professional, Robin was taking zero chances with the lives of her passengers. She began to demonstrate the brace position, ensuring each and every passenger understood by making them show her they could do it themselves. She repeated over and over as she made her way down the aisle, “You’ll have to prove this to me.” She checked to ensure everyone’s seatbelts were tight and low and then began to brief people on the location and operation of the emergency exits.
Pilots of Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529 Realize Plane Does Not Have Enough Altitude to Land at Airport
Meanwhile back in the aircraft, a sobering reality begins to take shape. Even though the plane has slowed its descent, they are still descending, and at this rate, Captain Gannaway knows they won’t make it to the airport in Atlanta. After the flight crew radios in, ATC tells them West Georgia Regional Airport is just 10 miles (or 16 km) away, so the captain turns the plane in that direction. Over the next few minutes, the plane continues to lose more and more altitude. Now the airport is just 2 minutes away, but their descent rate is still too fast (1800 feet or 548 m per minute) and they are at 3,400 feet (or 1,036 m). The pilots now know that Flight 529 will not make it to this airport either. Captain Gannaway also knows that he needs the most straight-in approach to West Georgia regional – they are running out of time.
It's also at this moment that Captain Gannaway has a chance to look out his windshield and sees the left engine. He can now see it is in pieces and dangling from the wing. And now the captain realizes why the flight controls have been so difficult. And, unfortunately, flight attendant Robin Fech never tells the pilots what she herself had seen out the window – she simply thought they already knew.
Up until this moment, the plane has been making its way through cloud cover. Now, at 1900 feet (or 579 m) it breaks through the clouds into open, clear air. But the sight that greets them is shocking: in front of them is nothing but forest for miles – and no airport anywhere to be seen. The controller at West Georgia Regional is shocked at the plane’s current altitude – only one minute earlier the crew reported their altitude at 3,400 feet. Now they’re hardly above the ground and too far away to make it the 4 miles (or 6 km) to the airport.
ASA Flight 529 Crash Lands in Rural Burwell, Georgia and Catches Fire Post Impact
As flight attendant Robin Fech performs her final checks on the cabin and begins to make her way back towards her own seat, she looks once more out the window – and now she can see treetops. She now knows this is going to be a crash landing. Strapping herself into her seat, Robin begins to shout over and over, “Brace! Brace! Heads down! Brace!”
Knowing they will not make it to any airport, all the flight crew can do now is hold the plane as level as possible and attempt to land the plane on its belly. The altitude warning sounds over and over, “too low, too low” as the top of the forest comes up to meet them.
Fearing the worst and knowing that the cockpit voice recorder will be silently recording until the end, First Officer Warmerdam leaves an audible message for his wife, “Amy, I love you.” These are the final words on the CVR.
At 12:52 PM local time, Flight 529, flying at a speed of 138 mph (or 222 kph), pitches over and begins an uncommanded dive toward the ground. It first shears off a path of treetops at a length of 360 feet (or 109 m). It next cuts a swath through the trees as it careens toward the ground at a 20-degree angle. As it makes its first impact, the overhead storage bins all come open and passenger luggage and items fly through the cabin. The plane comes down on its left side and begins to slide, and as it does, the entire left side of the plane is crushed inward, and several large holes are torn into the fuselage. The left wing rips off, throwing the left propellers away from the plane. The aircraft then hits an incline in the field where it has crashed, and briefly becomes airborne once again before falling back to earth and spinning uncontrollably. Behind the wings, the aircraft breaks in half, sending airplane sections tumbling through the air. The forward portion of the aircraft, including the cockpit, landed upright. The aft (or tail) portion of the fuselage came to finally rest on its right side and was supported by the right horizontal stabilizer. The plane finally comes to rest in an open field in the small farming town of Burwell, Georgia, near Carrollton. Despite the extreme damage to the aircraft, this was a major feat of flying.
Local Burwell Residents Come to Help Passengers of Fallen Flight 529
Frances Boone, a resident who loved near the crash site, saw where the plane came to rest and immediately noticed that the pilot missed striking the overhead wires and landing on houses. Realizing that her life and the loves of so many of her neighbors were spared, Frances remarked, “He had to be a marvelous pilot."
Bill and Polana Jeters owned the farm near where Flight 529 crashed. They were reading at the kitchen table when Polana told Bill, “We better get out of here – a plane is going to hit the house.” When they rushed outside, they see the front of the plane in its final crash sequence, which they described as "rolling and tumbling and on fire”. Bill told Polana to call 911 while he made his way toward the wreckage. When he gets there, he can see that the plane is completely broken in half and now is starting to be engulfed by fire. What he doesn’t know is that the fuel tanks of the Brasilia have ruptured in the crash sequence, and that is what is causing the fire.
And thank goodness that Polana Jeters did indeed call 911. Even though First Officer Warmerdam had declared an emergency 8 minutes before the crash while speaking with control at West Georgia Regional, that controller forgot to notify emergency services. Polana’s call to emergency services is in fact the very first time that they have been notified. First responders arrived on scene in 10 minutes. And they could not have gotten there too soon. There are survivors.
Post-Crash Fire Means Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529 Passengers Must Jump Through Flames to Save Their Own Lives
Some passengers began to emerge from the plane through a large hole in the fuselage, but as the fire spreads, it engulfs this escape route. But people are desperate to escape the aircraft – which was most certainly going to become completely engulfed by flames – and they decide to bravely jump through the flames anyway, many catching on fire as they do. When they try to roll on the ground and extinguish the flames – it only got worse since fuel was spilled all over the ground. Flight attendant Robin Fech yelled at uninjured passengers to remove their own clothing and use that to snuff out the flames on fellow passengers. She began to rip off what was left of her own tattered uniform to try and put out those who were still on fire. She then began to administer first aid to the worst injured.
Speaking of flight attendant Robin Fech, she had been knocked unconscious by the impact and awoke to find herself completely flipped round in her jump seat, engulfed in smoke and surrounded by flames.
She had burns, cracked ribs and a broken arm and collarbone, though she didn’t know any of that at the time – she only knew she was hurt. Unable to see anything due to the thick smoke, she could hear passengers screaming for help. Her training once again kicked in as she struggled to free herself and leave the burning aircraft. What she found outside was utter carnage. As well as the mangled wreckage she was surrounded by, many of her passengers, all of whom had survived the initial impact, were engulfed in flames. That was when she asked others to help the burning passengers by putting out the flames with their clothing.
An unknown passenger later described making the unimaginable choice to save their life by jumping through fire, “When I turned again toward the opening, I saw three or four people between me and the outside – all standing motionless. Then I saw why. The massive crack in the fuselage had become immersed in fire and smoke, and we couldn’t see past the furious flames. “God, there must be another way out!” wailed the thoughts inside my foggy head. I spun around to the rear of the broken plane and saw that everyone behind me was facing forward. I knew if another life-saving exit was accessible, people would be using it. As I turned back to the opening, we all shouted in unison, “You have to do it! You have to go through the fire! Go, go, go!” Knowing we had no other option, everyone began to leap through the fire, until it was my turn. I leapt through the fire too, but I don’t remember it. All I remember is hitting the ground outside the plane and somersaulting to my feet.”
Captain Gannaway had been knocked unconscious by the impact. However, First Officer Warmerdam was fully conscious and desperately trying to escape from the mangled wreckage. The cockpit was quickly becoming engulfed in fire due to an oxygen canister behind their seats that was feeding the fire. The cockpit window became jammed as the first officer tried to open it. Now, with one of the onboard emergency axes, First Officer Warmerdam hacks away at the thick glass but is only able to make a small hole and not big enough through which to escape. Passenger David McCorkell runs over to assist First Officer, who hands him the axe so David can start hacking away at it from the outside. During these efforts, the axe actually breaks off, but luckily, first responders are soon to arrive on the scene and takeover. Ultimately, with David’s help and assistance from first responders and flight attendant Robin Fech, First Officer Warmerdam is pulled to safety.
9 People Die in Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529 Crash, including Captain while First Officer Survives
In all, out of the 3 crew members and 26 passengers onboard Flight 529, nine people died, including Captain Gannaway, who sadly, never regained consciousness. Sadly, everyone was alive after the plane crashed. However, according to the Carroll Country Medical Examiner, seven people later died due to smoke inhalation and thermal burns due to the onboard fire, including the captain. Two others later died due to blunt force trauma to the head and face.
Amazingly, 20 people survived, including First Officer Warmerdam, who had burns over 40 percent of his body and required extensive physical therapy, and flight attendant Robin Fech. Many people are badly injured, many with broken bones and burns, that covered from 2 to 92 percent of their bodies. One of the passengers were so badly burnt that later, while in the hospital, she was completely covered in bandages and her young son only recognized her after he saw her eyes and heard her voice.
The injured passengers are taken to the local hospital, which issues a code black – it is all hands-on deck. Dr. Bobby Mitchell was one of the emergency room doctors who cared for many of the burn victims. Of this experience, he said, “I have never before or since dealt with so much physical devastation and emotional upheaval and so much sorrow and horror and sadness in one place and at one time as we did on that day.”
Later, Dr. Mitchell was asked to participate in the autopsy of Captain Gannaway. As the captain’s lifeless body lay on the table, Dr. Mitchell put his hand on the captain and said, “You’re the hero.” Dr. Mitchell explained, it was important to him that Captain Gannaway knew that he did a good job that day.
And he was right. The flight crew, through intense and impossible circumstances, managed to keep their plane airborne for an astonishing nine minutes after the propellor blades and engine failed. Their skilled efforts likely saved countless lives on the ground, while flight attendant Robin Fech’s meticulous preparations of the passengers 100% saved many of their lives that day.
NTSB Investigation into Flight 529 Crash Focuses on Embraer Brasilia Propeller Blades
Soon after the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (or NTSB) is on scene to conduct its investigation into the crash of Flight 529. One of the first parts of the aircraft that their attention is drawn to are the propellors, which appear to have broken apart. And what they find is shocking – they find telltale marks of a potential fatigue fracture.
Their concerns are deepened because the crash of Flight 529 echoes another ASA crash also involving a Brasilia aircraft, this one being Flight 2311, which we will cover in a future episode. Long story short, investigators found in that crash that a badly designed propellor control unit had caused the crash, and the NTSB had blamed the manufacturer, Hamilton Standard. And then prior to the crash of Flight 529, two other Brasilia aircraft experienced propellors breaking during flights, one in Canada, and one in Brazil. Neither incident was fatal. Following those incidents, all airlines in the US were required to inspect Hamilton Standard propellers on aircraft that were currently in service.
NTSB Finds Evidence of Corrosion on Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529 Propellers
After examining the broken blades from Flight 529, investigators indeed find evidence that the propellors snapped due to a fatigue fracture resulting in corrosion from chlorine. When investigators look into the maintenance records for the aircraft that was Flight 529, they find that the blade was sent to the propellor manufacturer’s facility at Hamilton Standard, where it was subject to refurbishing work.
On the Brasilia, the propellor blades have a hollow interior. Inside, weights are inserted to balance the prop, which are kept in place by a cork soaked in chlorine. But the engineer inspecting the blade that was on the aircraft later known as Flight 529 was unable to detect any presence of chlorine corrosion. And so, he polished the inside of the blade, which is exactly what he had been told to do. But unknown to the engineer, by polishing the blade, he had inadvertently removed any trace of the crack. A subsequent ultrasound examination also could not find any traces of the crack, so the propeller blade was then reinstalled on the aircraft 11 months before Flight 529 crashed. But the truth was, the damage still existed inside the blade, it just was unable to be detected either by visual or ultrasound inspection because it had been buffed out.
NTSB Issues Probable Cause of Crash of ASA Flight 529, Blames Manufacturer
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the crash of Flight 529 was the in-flight fatigue fracture and separation of a propeller blade resulting in distortion of the left engine, causing excessive drag, loss of wing lift, and reduced directional control of the airplane. The fracture was caused by a fatigue crack from multiple corrosion pits that were not discovered by Hamilton Standard because of inadequate and ineffective corporate inspection and repair techniques, training, documentation, and communications.
The NTSB made numerous recommendations to rectify issues discovered throughout the investigation which focused on manufacturer engineering practices, propeller blade maintenance repair, propeller testing and inspection procedures, the relaying of emergency information by air traffic controllers, crew resource management training, and the design of crash axes carried in aircraft. Hamilton Standard completely revamped all their maintenance procedures and the design of the propellor blades, and this crash was the last crash having to do with flawed propellor blades on the Brasilia.
Passengers and Crew of Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529 and Burwell Residents Forever Changed by Crash
Following the crash of Flight 529, the residents of Burwell, GA, built a memorial to the crash victims near Shiloh United Methodist church, which includes a plaque with all the names of those who died. It also features a quote that captures how much the town cared for and about everyone impacted by this disaster. It says, “They fell to the earth and found friends.”
Four days after the disaster, flight attendant Robin Fech returned to the crash scene. With her arm in a sling and using crutches to walk, she toured the site accompanied by her mother, airline officials, and the Carroll County Sheriff Jack Bell. Sheriff Bell praised Robin for being a true hero by saying, “That lady did a lot out there. She’s one of the reasons a lot of those people lived.” Robin Fech ultimately saved the lives of 17 of her passengers and her First Officer. Passengers later spoke of her incredible skills and bravery that fateful day. Byron Gaskill said, “I can’t imagine anybody being more purposeful in doing her job.” And US Air Force Major Chuck LeMay said: “Because of her, folks inside the cabin remained calm. No one was screaming before the impact… We did not panic. Robin behaved like a drill sergeant.” Robin never worked as a Flight Attendant again, but her utter bravery is a testament to her and to the training that flight attendants receive. Remember, their one true job is to keep us safe.
When lying in a bed at Erlanger hospital, with 42 percent of his body burned and six of his fingers partially amputated, First Officer Matt Warmerdam said he never thought of giving up his career as a pilot. He had to work very hard in physical therapy to learn how to use his hands without all his fingers. And he did – he returned to flying in 2002. He has received several commendations including a Patients of Courage award from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons for his amazing physical recovery. The first officer also received the Order of Daedalians General Harold L. George Civilian Airmanship Award, which is given annually to the pilot, copilot and/or crew who have demonstrated ability, judgment, and/or heroism above and beyond normal operational requirements. First Officer Warmerdam said he regrets that lives were lost in the 1995 crash, but he wouldn’t change what happened to him in the process. Of the experience, he says, "I’m glad it was me that it happened to. So many good things came out of it. I’ve learned so much. I’m a better person for it."
ASA Flight 529 Captain Memorialized After His Tragic Death in Crash
And let’s not forget Captain Ed Gannaway, who gave his life on that fateful day. During his memorial service, the minister remarked, "Because of Ed Gannaway, 20 others are still alive. It will always be hard to face this loss, but I pray that it will be reassuring to know that Ed Gannaway died for the sake of other lives."
No one knew at the time, but the captain’s untimely and tragic death would touch off a chain of events back in his hometown of Winston-Salem that continues to affect lives to this day. After his death, his high school classmates decided that perhaps they could do something in his memory. They established a college scholarship in his name, and it has continued to grow since then, and it is believed to be the largest scholarship program of its kind in the country created by one graduating class.
And of Captain Gannaway’s hero status, Jimmy Allgood, a former boss who frequently flew with Gannaway, said, “Anything he did, he did better than anyone else. I don’t think Ed would set out to be a hero, but when it came to taking care of others, that’s what he did. ″
And THAT is the little known yet completely amazing and touching story of Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529.