The Mitsubishi MU-2 is a fast, cheap cargo plane, with two propellers, cigar-shaped fuel tanks at the ends of its wings - and a lengthy record of 183 accidents causing almost 200 deaths over the past 36 years.
Although it can carry 11 people, it's not often used for passenger service these days and has a "slight reputation problem," according to Jane's Civil Aircraft, a respected guide to airplanes.
The MU-2 remains popular, however, among two groups: Caribbean drug smugglers and cargo companies speeding overnight shipments of checks between banks, according to the guide and cargo pilots interviewed yesterday.
The pilot of one of the 40-foot-long planes was performing the latter task for a Georgia-based charter company when he was killed yesterday morning in a crash near .
"I think it's a demanding airplane, but this is the first time we've had a fatality in one," said Pat Epps, founder of Epps Air Service Inc., which owned the plane.
Twelve years ago, the propeller of a Mitsubishi MU-2 owned by Epps flew off while the plane was near Philadelphia. The blades ripped into the body of the plane, cutting off the plane's electricity and forcing the pilot to make a crash landing, which he survived.
"You don't like to say it's part of the business, but these things happen," said Epps. "It's unfortunate, and you don't like to see it."
The 39-year-old company provides chartered flights to corporate clients and rushes checks and other documents overnight between banks. It has 175 employees and about 40 pilots.
Epps Aviation has lost five pilots to crashes over the past 14 years in other kinds of small planes. Three of the company's pilots were killed in January 2002 when a Canadair Challenger 604 crashed while carrying two corporate clients in Birmingham, England.
"It's not as bad as racing cars," said Epps, whose father, aviation pioneer Ben T. Epps, was killed in an airplane accident. "I'm 70 years old, and I'm still flying acrobatics, and I haven't had an accident yet."
Federal aviation officials refused to comment on the MU-2's safety record yesterday, and representatives of Mitsubishi did not return phone calls. But some pilots and attorneys who have been involved in litigation pointed to the plane's history.
South Dakota Gov. George S. Mickelson, who died with seven others in the crash of an MU-2 in April 1993 near Dubuque, Iowa, was one of 196 people killed in the planes since 1968, according to National Safety Transportation Board records.
Ladd Sanger, a Dallas attorney who has filed three lawsuits over fatal and near-fatal crashes of MU-2s, said the airplanes can be difficult to handle at times because they lack ailerons, the metal wing flaps that are used to control the rolling of planes.
If an MU-2 is traveling slowly - for example, just after takeoff - and an engine fails, it can flip over and be nearly impossible to control, Sanger said.
"The freight haulers like them because they have a good cargo capacity and good range," Sanger said. "But the MU-2 has an accident rate that is among the highest for twin-engine turboprop planes."
After an MU-2 carrying six people on a ski trip crashed near Newcastle, Colo., in March 1992, killing everyone aboard, the victims' families sued Mitsubishi. The plaintiffs' attorneys presented evidence that 21 percent of the 755 MU-2s built had crashed, compared with 8 percent of comparable turboprop planes, according to the West Group legal records company. The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount.
Bob Cadwalader, a freight pilot from Linthicum with more than 11,000 hours of flight time, said MU-2s have relatively small wings and powerful engines, making them even harder to control if an engine fails.
"It's a very comfortable, very fast ride, but if anything goes wrong, there's no margin for safety," Cadwalader said.
Lauren Peduzzi, spokeswoman for the transportation safety board, would not discuss whether federal officials are considering the MU-2's accident history as they investigate the cause of yesterday's accident.
"We don't even know all of the circumstances of the accident, so we can't just even speculate on the cause," Peduzzi said.
The planes were built by Mitsubishi in Japan and Texas from 1963 to 1986. They can cost more than $350,000 and have a maximum speed of about 330 mph, a range of about 1,260 miles and a wingspan of about 40 feet.
The plane that crashed yesterday suffered minor damage to its propeller, wing and landing-gear door during an accident almost a year ago in Detroit. On May 28, its pilot tried to land in heavy fog and struck a runway light, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.
Since 1979, the FAA has issued 20 orders - called airworthiness directives - to Mitsubishi to remedy potential safety problems with MU-2s, according to federal records.
Among other steps, the directives have required training MU-2 pilots on how to predict icing on the wings, inspections of the cockpit windshields for cracks, installation of new deicing monitoring systems and replacement of bolts on the wingtip tanks.
"That is not too many, actually, considering the fact that we issue hundreds of these directives a year," said Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman.
But Keith Franz, a Towson-based attorney who specializes in aircraft litigation, said 20 FAA directives concerning one make of airplane sound like a disturbingly high number. "That's a very poor record," he said.
Sun staff writers Walter F. Roche Jr. and Childs Walker contributed to this article.