- Associated Press - Thursday, August 17, 2017

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - A rare National Transportation Safety Board investigative hearing held outside Washington, D.C., focused on the challenges of flying in a state that lacks infrastructure common at airports elsewhere.

The NTSB chose to conduct an investigative hearing in Anchorage, Alaska, the first outside the nation’s capital in nearly 20 years, to increase awareness of “controlled flight into terrain” accidents, in which an airworthy aircraft is flown unintentionally into ground or water.

The hearing specifically took testimony on an Oct. 2 Hageland Aviation Services crash on a mountain between the southwest Alaska villages of Quinhagak and Togiak, two tiny communities off the road system. The crash killed two pilots and a passenger.

“We want to determine what can be done to avoid a similar crash in the future,” said NTSB board member Earl Weener, who chaired the hearing.

The hearing took sworn testimony but participants did not discuss possible causes of the crash. Board spokesman Chris O’Neil said the full board will produce a final report on the crash and could make additional safety recommendations.



The crash killed Timothy Cline, 43, and Drew Welty, 29, the pilots, and Louie John, 49, a passenger.

Cline and Welty were operating under visual flight rules. Their Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, a single-engine turboprop, crashed about 200 feet (61 meters) below the peak of a mountain on the most direct path between the villages. A second Hageland aircraft left about five minutes later, flew around the mountain and landed safely in Togiak.

Luke Hickerson, Hageland’s director of operations and the company’s former chief pilot, said the company would prefer to fly every route with instrument flight rules. It’s simply not possible, he said.

Flying by instrument requires certified weather information. At least two-thirds of Hageland’s routes are to communities that lack that infrastructure, Hickerson said.

Communications taken for granted elsewhere are often lacking in rural Alaska. Some landing sites are dirt strips and don’t even have power, he said.

Weather along Alaska’s coast or in mountain ranges can change quickly, Hickerson said. Flying under visual rules, pilots take weather information where they can find it, including unofficial sources, such as people they can reach with company-issued cellphones.

The company has worked to emphasize safety in what has been a risk-taking culture, Hickerson said.

Pilots are highly encouraged to reverse course when conditions deteriorate. Their compensation no longer depends on completing flights, he said. An operations control center helps assess risk without consideration from the business side, such as how much mail has piled up and how many passengers are waiting to fly.

Additional testimony focused on pilots’ use of the aircraft’s Terrain Avoidance and Warning System, which gives either alerts or hard warnings when an aircraft flies too near the ground.

Hageland chief pilot Erin Witt said the system is sometimes disengaged because it sounds alarms when an aircraft drops to 700 feet (215 meters).

Flying at an altitude of 500 feet (150 meters) is allowed under visual rules. Hageland pilots routinely fly between 500 and 700 feet to reach villages if the ceiling is low, Witt said.

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