Both pilots were either too overwhelmed or distracted by the power loss ¿ or some other cockpit crisis ¿ to navigate back to the airport

The Learjet 35 that crashed after takeoff from Fort Lauderdale last month, killing all four onboard, had a good chance of returning safely to the airport if it had made an immediate U-turn, aviation experts say.

Now, investigators are trying to figure out what was going on in the cockpit, why the plane kept flying away from the airport instead of heading back to it and why it was just 700 feet above the water when the last radio transmission was made.

The Learjet should have been able to fly safely on just one of its two engines, and the crew reported that just one engine had failed.

"According to Federal Aviation Administration specifications, that airplane must be able to climb on one engine to a safe altitude," said Alan Cohn, a seasoned corporate pilot, who has extensive experience in Learjets.

Yet, even though the pilot of the ill-fated flight requested a 180-degree turn back to the runway, the plane instead made a slow turn to the north, paralleled the shoreline, quickly descended and flew "away from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport," according to a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report released Tuesday.

That indicates that both pilots were either too overwhelmed or distracted by the power loss – or some other cockpit crisis – to navigate back to the airport, Cohn said. The Lear crashed in the ocean about four miles northeast of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International shortly before 8 p.m. on Nov. 19.

"I think what happened was someone forgot to fly the airplane," said Cohn, of Plantation, a former cargo and airline pilot. "Normally, one guy flies the plane while the other one handles the problem."

Earlier that day, the Mexican registered Learjet had made an ambulance flight for AirEvac International, delivering a medical patient from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Fort Lauderdale. It was preparing to make a 90-minute flight back to its base in Cozumel, Mexico, when the accident occurred.

The pilots were identified as Jose Hiram Galvan de la O, the captain, and Josue Buendia Moreno, the copilot. The passengers were Fernando Senties Nieto, a doctor, and Mariana Gonzalez Isunza, a nurse. All four were Mexican citizens.

The bodies of Galvan de la O and Senties Nieto have yet to be found, the U.S. Coast Guard said Tuesday.

Brian Rayner, an NTSB accident investigator, said the ultimate culprit behind the crash remains unknown and that all angles will be scrutinized, from the plane's maintenance history to the pilots' experience levels.

However, he indicated that the power loss and how the pilots responded to it likely will be the primary focus of the investigation.

"Was this an emergency something they had been trained to respond to, or was it something that was completely out of the ordinary? We have no way of knowing right now," he said.

Hampering the investigation, both of the jet's engines remain in 60 feet of water. Also, the plane's cockpit voice recorder, which might have captured the conversation between the two pilots, also is at the bottom of the ocean, Rayner said.

If the recorder hasn't been damaged by sea water or the plane's impact, it might reveal which engine – or possibly if both – lost power, he said.

From air traffic control data, this much is known: After taking off, the jet climbed to 2,200 feet at an airspeed of about 230 mph, which was normal. That's when one of the pilots reported an engine failure and requested vectors – or specific headings – back to the runway.

About a minute later, the pilot reported, "mayday," and over the next three minutes repeatedly requested vectors back to the airport, Rayner said.

Even though controllers provided those directions and told the crew to steer southwest, the plane flew north, slowed to 160 mph and descended to 900 feet over the ocean surface. At 700 feet, the plane finally made a left turn toward the shore and dropped off radar shortly after that.

"Obviously, the captain felt he was dealing with something that required he return to the airport," Rayner said. "But precisely how he dealt with it, whether he followed the prescribed response, those are all unknowns."

According to the preliminary report, both pilots were certified by the Mexican government to fly the Learjet 35.

Galvan de la O, the captain, had a total of 10,091 hours of flight experience, including 1,400 in the Learjet 35. His medical certificate had expired on Aug. 22, but it's unknown whether that played a role, Rayner said. Moreno, the copilot, had a total of 1,235 hours, including 175 hours in the Learjet 35.

The plane, manufactured in 1979, completed a maintenance inspection on Nov. 4, or about two weeks before the accident.

Wreckage gathered from the ocean surface immediately after the accident, including the exterior of the fuselage, seat cushions and luggage, was taken to the U.S. Coast Guard Station at John U. Lloyd State Park in Dania Beach.

After inspecting it, safety board investigators said there were no signs that the plane suffered an in-flight fire or break-up prior to plowing into the ocean.

A final ruling as to what caused the crash could take more than a year. For now, Rayner said he's more concerned about recovering more plane wreckage.

"The evidence we really, really want is still on the bottom of the ocean," he said. "But I'm confident we're going to get what we need to support a probable cause."

kkaye@tribune.com or 561-243-6530.