FOR MOST OF THE 20 PEOPLE ABOARD American Eagle Flight 3379 last Dec. 13, the 30-minute hop from Greensboro, N.C., to Raleigh-Durham International Airport was to be the first leg of a night of flying. College freshman Lauren Anderson, 18, heading home for Christmas vacation, and champion bass fisherman Bryan Kerchal, 23, fresh from a luncheon event for Wrangler jeans, were catching a connecting flight to New York City. Computer systems consultant Jonathan Kast, 35, had just wrapped up a business trip to Winston-Salem and was heading home to wife Betsey and their three children in Boston.

But as pilot Michael Hillis brought the Jetstream Super 31 in for a landing in the fog and rain at Raleigh-Durham just after 6:30 p.m., all those plans were snuffed out. Hillis, 29, apparently misconstrued a warning light to mean that his left engine was out. Trying to compensate, he deflected the rudder. The twin-engine plane spun out of control and smashed into a wooded hillside, killing Hillis, copilot Matthew Sailor and 13 of 18 passengers, Kerchal and Kast included.

In the next few hours, the survivors of the dead passengers were informed of the crash and their loss. But nothing could have prepared them for what they learned in the following months: that pilot Hillis had a long history of flying errors, and that four days before being hired by American Eagle in 1991, he had been forced to resign from another commuter carrier, Delta's Comair, after he flunked several routine piloting tests. Hillis's new bosses at American Eagle were unaware of his background: Airlines generally don't share personnel information for fear of being sued by pilots who might claim that the records unfairly malign them. Now, joined by others whose loved ones died in the crash of Flight 3379, Jonathan Kast's family is waging a public battle for legally mandated disclosure of pilots' safety records. "What tears us apart," says his father, Wilhelm, "is that this [crash] could have been avoided."

Kast, 56, and his wife, Sigrun, 55, who run a marketing services firm, received the grim news of the crash when the phone rang at their home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., at 2:30 a.m. Jonathan had been found barely alive on a muddy slope near the plane wreckage. Although doctors at Duke University hospital worked on him for more than an hour, he never regained consciousness. "All of a sudden it's like there's a hole in this family," says Wilhelm, who emigrated from Germany with Sigrun and baby Jonathan, the first of their eight children, in 1960.

Their sorrow was shot through with anger when they learned just how bad Hillis's record was. A Comair captain would later tell the National Transportation Safety Board that Hillis, who had been flying for 10 years, had "below-average piloting skills that required my constant attention," and a Comair evaluator reported he had worried that "Mike may freeze up or get tunnel vision in an emergency situation." Although American Eagle officials say Hillis's job performance was adequate, several of the airline's copilots complained about his skills.

These disclosures "virtually blew up everything we ever believed in," says Wilhelm. If the NTSB has its way, the secrecy that allowed Hillis to hide his past will soon end. Pilots with poor records have caused "four accidents in eight years with 72 lives lost," says Jim Hall, chairman of the NTSB—which recommended to the Federal Aviation Administration on Nov. 8 that airlines be required to conduct detailed employee background checks. The FAA has until February to respond, but the Air Line Pilots Association is lobbying against the proposal, citing privacy concerns.

While Jonathan's wife, Betsey, prefers to mourn privately, his parents and his seven siblings have found that pushing publicly for change has helped them to come to terms with his death. "It's not in my basic nature to go out on a limb," says Sigrun. "But there is a certain point where you have to speak up." (The Kasts have also filed a multimillion-dollar negligence suit against American Eagle's parent company, AMR Corp.)

The morning after the crash, Wilhelm and Sigrun flew to Raleigh and identified their son's body, first from the coroner's photos, then, at their request, in person. "I needed to know what they had done to him," she says. That night, back home, they huddled with their remaining children in their art-filled Tudor-style home. "We all slept on the living room floor because no one could stand being away," recalls Sigrun. "We just all lay together and held on to each other."

Since then, the Kasts have struggled to move on. This past spring, Jonathan's sisters Andrea, 32, Katharina, 33, and Miriam, 34—all professional musicians—held a memorial concert for their brother, an accomplished drummer and guitarist and a devoted Bruce Springsteen fan. Sigrun has founded the Jonathan Kast Foundation to award college scholarships to music students. "The main thing that gets you through is family," she says.

It was Jonathan's desire to spend more time with Betsey and their children that put him on Flight 3379 in the first place. After two years traveling to Asia and Australia on business, he had recently been limiting his trips to the East Coast, allowing him to fly home at night. "We used to joke, 'There's always a Kast in the air,' " says Sigrun, of her large, mobile family.

These days, no Kast takes flying so lightly. When Wilhelm and Sigrun are traveling, their youngest child, Alex, 11, refuses to go to bed until he knows they've arrived safely. Still, Wilhelm insists that the family's crusade for reform is directed against the system and not Mike Hillis. "As a human being, I feel sorry for him," says Wilhelm. "My anger is directed at those who let the pilot fly my son when they knew the pilot was not qualified."

Last October, all but two of the Kasts flew to Washington to attend the NTSB hearing on the American Eagle crash. Lauren Anderson, now 19, who suffered multiple fractures, a punctured lung and a broken back in the accident, and her parents, Marie, 50, and Richard, 51, of Stony Brook, N.Y., also turned out in a show of support. "We spoke to several people who lost family members, and the feeling we got from them is we can't let this drop," says Marie. "There are things that can happen that are out of anyone's control, but this was not out of somebody's control."

CYNTHIA SANZ
LUCHINA FISHER in Bloomfield Hills, BARBARA SLAVIN in Washington and MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Luchina Fisher,
  • Barbara Slavin,
  • Maria Speidel.