20 Years Later: Remembering the tragic Air Midwest Flight 5481 crash in Charlotte

The tragic accident took the lives of 19 passengers and two crew members on Jan. 8, 2003.
Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the tragic plane crash at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
Published: Jan. 8, 2023 at 5:55 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of a tragic airplane crash that claimed the lives of 21 people at the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

On the morning of Jan. 8, 2003, Air Midwest Flight 5481 took off en route to the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in Greer, S.C. About one minute after takeoff, the plane struck a maintenance hangar located near the runway, destroying it on impact and causing it to burst into flames.

Sadly, all 19 passengers and both crew members onboard were killed. One additional person was injured on the ground.

Just one day earlier, one of the pilots flying the plane into Charlotte said that “everything was normal” and that “it was a good flying airplane.”

Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of a tragic airplane crash that claimed the lives of 21 people at the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

The plane was in the air for just seconds before it came plummeting back down.

Within minutes of the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was notified, and within hours, had a team on-site to begin an investigation.

Thirteen months later, on Feb. 26, 2004, the NTSB published its final crash report, citing “the airplane’s loss of pitch control during takeoff” as the reason for the tragic accident, which was likely caused by the “incorrect rigging of the elevator control system, compounded by the airplane’s aft center of gravity.”

Essentially, the NTSB concluded that the plane had been improperly maintained and had exceeded the proper weight limit in the rear of the plane.

Then, two years after the crash, on May 6, 2005, Air Midwest did something unprecedented - the airline held an ‘apology ceremony’ at the crash memorial site at the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

During that ceremony, Air Midwest President Greg Stephens offered the following statement to the victims’ families:

“Air Midwest and its maintenance provider, Vertex, acknowledge deficiencies, which together with the wording of the aircraft maintenance manuals, contributed to this accident. This tragedy has caused us to investigate rigorously our policies and guidelines regarding aircraft maintenance, operation and safety in general.”

“We have taken substantial measures to prevent similar accidents and incidents in the future, so that your losses will not have been suffered in vain. We have also implemented or are implementing the applicable NTSB safety recommendations following this accident.”

In the time since, Air Midwest has ceased operations. More importantly though, the crash has spurred aviation safety improvements across the industry, particularly in the area of maintenance. Weight rules were also later changed.

One aviation attorney, who represented a crash victim’s family, cited the Air Midwest case as one of the most significant ones in his entire 60-year career.

“The 20th anniversary of the tragic Air Midwest 5481 crash is an opportunity to reflect on the ongoing fight for aviation safety,” attorney Ronald Goldman said via press release. “The lives lost, and the loving memories of each precious life, continue to spur our efforts. We believe that, out of this disaster, aviation safety has taken a step forward, as our work has led to concrete training and staffing improvements in maintenance shops.”

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