New report on Ketchikan plane crash says pilot lost sight of land, became disoriented

Coast Guard rescuers battled low visibility conditions in the rescue of 11 occupants of a...
Coast Guard rescuers battled low visibility conditions in the rescue of 11 occupants of a plane that crashed on Mount Jumbo in Southeast Alaska earlier this month. (From the U.S. Coast Guard) (KTUU)
Published: Jul. 18, 2018 at 8:41 AM AKDT
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On July 10, a plane crashed near Ketchikan; the pilot and 10 passengers aboard the flight reported varying injuries, but there were no fatalities.

Now, roughly a week after the crash, new details released Wednesday give a better idea of exactly what happened to the plane following interviews and preliminary investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

In the report, issued Wednesday by the NTSB, the pilot reported becoming disoriented and misidentifying a body of water being present instead of land. Passenger statements in the report indicate that they were uncomfortable with the flying even before the crash.

The plane, a de Havilland DHC-3T Turbine Otter, went down 39 miles south southwest of Ketchikan near Hetta Inlet, 2,000 feet in elevation on Mount Jumbo. The pilot told the investigator in charge that visibility in the area decreased "rapidly from about 3-5 miles to nil."

After that, the pilot made a 180 degree turn, and saw "what he believed to be a body of water," causing him to become "disoriented" and level the wings of the plane.

Instead of water, he later "realized that the airplane was approaching an area of snow-covered mountainous terrain, so he applied full power and initiated a steep, emergency climb to avoid rising terrain ahead," the report states.

Previously, the pilot of the plane told the NTSB that he saw "rising terrain" ahead causing him to initiate the climb. Unfortunately, as the climb continued, NTSB reports, the airspeed "decayed," ultimately dropping the plane on the mountainside, and shearing off the plane's floats.

According to passengers on the plane, who gave statements in the report, worry came to them even before the crash.

One passenger, seated in the front of the plane, told investigators "there were numerous course deviations as they maneuvered around weather, and at times all forward visibility was lost as they briefly flew in and out of the clouds. [The passenger] said he became uncomfortable and was thinking it would be prudent to just land on the water."

As time passed, that same passenger saw the looming mountain ahead, which the pilot missed. He detailed to investigators what was going through his mind as the plane approached the mountainside.

"[The passenger] observed a large mountain loom directly in front of the airplane, knowing they could not out climb the mountain he presumed there must be a pass through the area," the NTSB report states. "As they continued to approach the mountain they entered a cloud and he observed the pilot add power and pitch up, but the airplane impacted the side of the mountain."

Another passenger, who was sitting in the back of the plane, told investigators there was "consistent serious fog all around" and that he "became very concerned that they were headed in the wrong direction."

At one point, he texted the first passenger seated in the front, a friend of his, and asked him to "ask the pilot to land and wait for the weather to improve." The second passenger didn't see the mountain until they were right on top of it, the NTSB said.

In addition to the pilot and passenger statements, the NTSB also said that during the flight, TAWS, or the Terrain Awareness and Warning System, was disabled. After a deadly crash in 2015 in the Ketchikan area, the NTSB recommended the FAA work to figure out how to have pilots still use the TAWS system, while mitigating nuisance alerts for pilots that often fly lower than the threshold the systems are designed to alert for.

Taquan Air President and CEO Brien Salazar said in an email statement Wednesday that the report, "reiterates the need for the FAA to implement ways to provide effective terrain awareness and warning system protections while mitigating nuisance alerts for planes operating under visual flight rules. This issue is important to us, and we are dedicated to working with the FAA and other operators to address it.“

Salazar also said the pilot has since been removed from flight status for Taquan, as part of company protocol.