MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The pilot who captained Sen. Paul Wellstone's fatal flight worked a night shift at his second job as a nurse on top of a flight assignment earlier the day before the crash, the Star Tribune reported Sunday.
The newspaper said the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating Richard Conry's schedule in the days before the crash -- and how it may have affected the 55-year-old's fitness to fly.
Conry's previously undisclosed four-hour nursing shift at a Twin Cities hospital ended between 9 and 10 p.m. the night before the Friday, Oct. 25 crash. That shift followed an unexpected 3-to-9:30 a.m. round-trip flight by Conry between St. Paul and Bismarck, N.D., earlier that Thursday.
The Star Tribune also said Conry's nursing job was a factor in his rejection as a part-time pilot candidate at Aviation Charter Inc. of Eden Prairie in fall 2000, according to a former chief pilot at the company. Conry eventually was hired in April 2001.
Conry became a nurse in the mid-1990s after serving prison time for a felony fraud conviction related to a home-building business he owned in the 1970s and 1980s.
The amount of sleep Conry got before the fatal flight is important because fatigue contributes to up to one-third of all fatal transportation accidents, said Dr. Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center.
Mahowald said Conry probably was impaired by an "accumulated sleep loss problem" while flying Wellstone.
"It's hard to imagine he was not sleep-deprived," Mahowald said after he was told about Conry's early morning flight to North Dakota and his Thursday-night nursing work.
Conry and copilot Michael Guess took off at 9:20 a.m. Oct. 25 for a scheduled 14-hour trip. The trip ended in Eveleth at 10:22 a.m., when the twin turboprop King Air A100 crashed and burned 2 miles short of the runway. All eight people aboard were killed, including Wellstone's wife and daughter. The cause remains under investigation.
Dave Willman, a consultant to Aviation Charter, told the Star Tribune he was not aware that Conry worked the night before he flew Wellstone.
"I don't believe the company knew that he had a nursing job," Willman said.
Asked whether the company would have allowed Conry to fly the senator Friday morning if it had known about his shift the night before, Willman said, "I can't say whether we would or wouldn't have."
Willman emphasized that Conry, on the day of the crash, didn't break federal regulations that require a 10-hour off-duty period between scheduled flights. In addition, he said, it's a pilot's responsibility to declare if he is fit for a flight.
Elizabeth Isham Cory, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said the 10-hour rest requirement doesn't prevent pilots from working a non-aviation job. She said it wouldn't be illegal for a pilot to work a second job, even if the work is within 10 hours of a takeoff.
On Wednesday, Oct. 23 -- two days before the crash -- Conry underwent a federally mandated proficiency check of his flying skills that many pilots consider stressful. The flight portion of that test took 1.7 hours and ended about 1 p.m., Willman said.
Unexpectedly, Conry was summoned to fly an assignment in the wee hours of Thursday, Oct. 24. That meant he had to get to the St. Paul airport from his home in Minnetonka an hour before the flight was scheduled to depart. The plane left about 3 a.m.
A passenger on that flight, Tom Bruns, was struck by Conry's appearance.
"He looked like he was wiped out. He looked white in the face," Bruns said. "I was concerned about it, and I still am."
Bruns told the Star Tribune that Conry complained of "not feeling so good" and other passengers were worried they might become sick from shaking hands with Conry. He said he has spoken to NTSB investigators about the experience.
Conry's copilot that on that flight, Bruce White, told the Star Tribune, "He seemed perfectly fine."
A former chief pilot at Aviation Charter told the Star Tribune he refused to hire Conry in late 2000 because Conry's "oddball nursing hours" conflicted with the unpredictable schedule of an on-demand air-charter pilot.
"I didn't think the two had a good overlap at all," he said, referring to Conry's desire to work the two jobs.
The former chief pilot asked the newspaper that his name be withheld out of concern for his present employment. The newspaper said a second unnamed source with firsthand knowledge of Conry's original application confirmed the decision not to hire him at that time, saying the company wanted to hire only full-time pilots.
Eric Pehle, a spokesman for Aviation Charter owner Roger Wikner, initially gave a similar account to the Star Tribune. But he called the newspaper back to say he had been wrong and Wikner had no knowledge of Conry applying for a job in fall 2000.
Kirk Otteson, director of operations at Aviation Charter since February 2001, said that when Conry applied as a pilot in the spring of 2001, he indicated on an application form he was not employed and had never previously applied for a job at the company. Otteson is the son of Aviation Charter co-owner Shirley Wikner.
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