The plane, which the two were ferrying from Little Rock, Ark. to Minneapolis, crashed and both Capt. Jesse Rhodes and First Officer Peter Cesarz perished.
The cockpit voice recording, released by the National Transportation Safety Board at the start of a three-day hearing into the Oct. 14, 2004 accident, revealed how the pilots cracked jokes and decided to "have a little fun" and fly to 41,000 feet — the maximum altitude for their 50-seat plane. Most commuter jets fly at lower altitudes.
"Man, we can do it, 41-it," said Cesarz at 9:48 p.m. A minute later, Rhodes said, "40 thousand, baby."
Two minutes later, "There's 41-0, my man," Cesarz said. "Made it, man."
At 9:52 p.m., one of the pilots popped a can of Pepsi and they joked about drinking beer. A minute later, Cesarz said, "This is the greatest thing, no way."
But at 10:03 p.m., the pilots reported their engine had failed. Five minutes later, they said both engines had failed and they wanted a direct route to any airport.
The transcript recounts their increasingly desperate efforts to restart the engines and regain altitude. They tried to land at the Jefferson City, Mo., airport but by 10:14 p.m., it was obvious they wouldn't reach it.
"We're not going to make it, man. We're not going to make it," Cesarz said. The plane crashed in a residential neighborhood of Jefferson City. No one was injured on the ground.
Accident investigators are examining how well the pilots were trained — a key safety question as the number of regional jets keeps growing.
The crash involved a Bombardier regional jet plane operated by Pinnacle Airlines, an affiliate of Northwest Airlines. Like many regional carriers, Pinnacle is growing rapidly as it teams up with a traditional network airline looking to offer more seats to more places.
Memphis, Tenn.-based Pinnacle grew by 700 percent in the past five years, according to Phil Reed, its marketing vice president. During that time, it switched its fleet from propeller-driven planes to small turbojets, known as regional jets, or RJs.
The number of regional jets rose to 1,630 last year from 570 in 2000, the Federal Aviation Administration says. The question of whether government safety inspectors can keep up with such rapid changes in the airline industry was raised last week in a Transportation Department inspector general's report.
Jet engines work differently at higher altitudes, and it's unclear whether the relatively inexperienced Pinnacle pilots were aware that they had to be more careful in the thin air at 41,000 feet, the maximum altitude for their plane.
According to FAA transcripts of air-to-ground conversations, an air traffic controller in Kansas City told the two pilots it was rare to see the plane flying that high.
"Yeah, we're actually ... we don't have any passengers on board, so we decided to have a little fun and come up here," one of the pilots said. The transcripts don't identify whether Jesse Rhodes or Cesarz made the statement.
First one, then the other engine shut down. The last contact that controllers had with the crew was at 9,000 feet, when the pilot reported an airport beacon in sight.
At the hearing, NTSB investigators plan to delve into the plane's flight limits and the proper recovery techniques when engines fail. They also want to know if the pilots knew those procedures and to learn the engine's performance characteristics at high altitudes.
On June 2, the FAA issued a special bulletin clarifying what steps pilots need to take to restart an engine when there's a dual engine failure, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said the issue may be reckless pilots rather than inadequate training or improper recovery procedures.
"This is more a story of pilots having time on their hands and playing with things in the cockpit that they shouldn't," he said.
Flying, he said, is as boring as truck driving most of the time.
"This was boredom and experimentation, these guys experimenting with things they had no business doing," Stempler said.