Federal safety investigators Tuesday blamed pilot error for a 2008 plane crash that killed six New Jersey construction executives who were working on the Revel casino project.

The National Transportation Safety Board, meeting in Washington, D.C., concluded that the pilots made a series of critical errors and were impaired by a lack of sleep the night before the July 31, 2008, crash at a regional airport in Owatonna, Minn.

“The pilots were not at their best and probably were not aware of how impaired they were,” investigator Malcolm Brenner told the NTSB members.

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The NTSB found no engine problems or mechanical defects with the plane, which was operated by charter outfit East Coast Jets Inc. of Allentown, Pa. The company, however, issued a statement alleging that the NTSB “ignored” a mechanical failure in the plane.

“This mechanical defect in the accident aircraft was a substantial contributing factor in the fatal outcome of the flight,” the statement said.

East Coast Jets declined to state exactly what the alleged defect was other than to say that it involved a “key landing system.”

The jet struck an airport antenna and crashed in a cornfield while attempting to get airborne again after an aborted landing. The plane, which took off from Atlantic City International Airport about 90 minutes earlier, was flying the executives to a business meeting at a Minnesota-based casino vendor.

Killed were passengers Karen Sandland, 44, of Galloway Township; Marc Rosenberg, 52, of Margate; Alan Barnett, 42, of Absecon; Tony Craig, 50, of Brigantine; Chris Daul, 44, of Northfield; and Lawrence “Chip” Merrigan, 62, of Absecon. Also killed were pilots Clark Keefer, of Bethlehem, Pa., and Dan D’Ambrosio, of Hellertown, Pa.

Craig, Daul and Merrigan all were executives at Revel Entertainment Group, the developer of a $2.4 billion casino project in Atlantic City. Sandland was a project manager for Tishman Construction Corp., the casino’s construction company. Rosenberg and Barnett were executives at APG International, a Glassboro company that supplied the glass for the casino’s facade.

“They were both valued employees of the company,” Ed Zaucha, chief executive officer of APG, said of Rosenberg and Barnett. “Marc had been a close friend and partner for 15 years and Alan as well. They were just tremendous people and are sorely missed.”

Zaucha declined to comment on the NTSB crash report, other than to question why it took the agency nearly three years to pinpoint the cause. The NTSB normally takes about 18 months to issue its crash findings, but the Owatonna report was delayed while the agency focused on other major aviation disasters.

“They’re all major to the loved ones of those who perished in the crash,” Zaucha said.

Tishman Construction declined to comment on the report. Revel Entertainment did not return messages seeking comment.

The plane crash added to the immense challenges of building the Revel casino. The project was nearly shut down by money shortages, but Revel secured $1.15 billion in financing last month to complete the half-finished megaresort, now scheduled for a mid-2012 grand opening.

The construction executives were flying to the Minnesota office of glass manufacturer Viracon Corp. to discuss the designs and purchase of glass for the casino.

The NTSB concluded the crew members made serious errors during their attempt at a “go-around” after the plane touched down. The pilots tried to get airborne again because they believed the jet did not have enough distance to stop on the rain-slick runway, the agency said.

Investigators also said the pilots “appeared to be in a hurry” to land, did not obtain an updated weather report that would have warned them of thunderstorms in the Owatonna area and failed to conduct the proper safety checklists.

“This accident reminds us that aviation is an unforgiving environment,” NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said. “The small things do matter, and in this case they accumulated to result in tragedy.”

Other factors contributing to the crash were a wet runway, an 8-knot tailwind and the crew’s 7-second delay in braking the plane. Instead of coming to a complete stop on the runway, the pilots tried to lift off. The NTSB said Keefer, the chief pilot, failed to quickly deploy what’s called a lift dump, a device that links the air brakes and wing flaps to slow down the plane. If the pilots had used the lift dump right after touchdown, the jet probably could have stopped safely on the runway, investigators found.

“The critical error here was the captain’s failure to deploy the lift dump,” NTSB board member Robert L. Sumwalt said.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258

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