Friday, March 11, 2016

National Transportation Safety Board investigators unravel Alaska plane crash mysteries on Smithsonian series

Chris Shaver, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, examines plane wreckage from a crash near Juneau.

Plane crash investigators have plenty of work in Alaska, which counts about 100 plane accidents per year and averages one each day during the summer.

Each accident yields its own set of clues and delivers its own lesson that National Transportation Safety Board investigators can help pilots avoid future incidents. But dry accident reports about complex aerodynamics or mechanical flaws don't always make for the most scintillating reading.

Now, through a new documentary television series, "Alaska Aircrash Investigations," on The Smithsonian Channel, pilots — and the public — can come along for the ride and watch as investigators unravel both the mundane and mysterious crashes that plague the northernmost state.

“The big test take-away from this is if we can get one pilot to think about something that is brought up on the show, a checklist item that gets them thinking — if it saves one person, all of this was worth it," NTSB investigator Shaun Williams, a former airline pilot and flight instructor, told USA TODAY.

One case investigated why an air taxi slammed into a mountain during a routine flight from the capital, Juneau. Another involved a recently repaired plane that crashed into a river during its first test flight. In one of the most emotional cases, a pilot flew over his daughter's wedding celebration and crashed into trees.

Millicent Hoidal, an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, examines plane wreckage to determine what caused a crash. She is featured on the Smithsonian Channel series "Alaska Aircrash Investigations."

Residents of the remote state more than twice as large as Texas depend on planes to get around with few roads between communities. But smaller, single-engine planes leave less room for error when something goes wrong. In most crashes, planes and their passengers survive with minor damage and injuries, but some crashes result in deaths.

In August 2010, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens was among four passengers and the pilot who died in the crash of a de Havilland DHC-3T Otter. In October 1972, U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs, D-La., disappeared with three other passengers and a pilot aboard a Cessna 310C.

"We look at what happened and try to make recommendations to keep it from happening again," Clint Johnson, chief of the NTSB regional office in Anchorage, told USA TODAY.

Alaska's NTSB office with four investigators is one of a constellation of regional offices with 52 investigators nationwide. During Johnson's 18 years with NTSB, the number of accidents has dropped from 130 per year to about 100.

Getting to crash sites quickly to take pictures and retrieve the plane is key to a successful investigation – a task that is not always easy in a state with challenging weather conditions, vast forests and mountains and often, few roads.

“All of this information is pieces to the puzzle,” said Johnson, who used to chat about cases with Stevens, whose Senate office was next door to the NTSB. “Without that information, you can’t solve the puzzle.”

When a Cessna 207 air taxi crashed into a mountain during the half-hour flight on July 17, 2015 from Juneau to Hoonah, killing two people and leaving three survivors, investigator Chris Shaver needed a lift from a Coast Guard helicopter to get him to the crash site just 18 miles from the capital. The site was so remote that the Coast Guard had to lower Shaver to the site in a metal basket.

Shaver ultimately had a helicopter lift the wreckage out of the forest so investigators could scrutinize it. Restarting the engine, reviewing navigational equipment and interviewing witnesses were each part of the effort to figure out what happened.

“When things go wrong, they can go wrong quickly," Johnson said.

A crash into a river near Bethel carried broader implications because a company had made many similar improvements to all of the planes in its fleet. If the problem was mechanical, finding and fixing it could potentially save lives across the country and around the world, Johnson said.

"That information could change a whole fleet or a whole series of airframes later on," Johnson told USA TODAY.

Investigator Millicent Hoidal discovered that the experienced pilot had flown just a few hundred feet above the ground during the Cessna 207’s first flight after the repairs, rather than the customary 5,000 feet — a clue that led to solving the mystery on the show.

Hoidal had to wait a couple of months to retrieve the wreckage from the swollen river. But in the meantime, she got crucial information about the dead pilot that pointed where to look in the wreckage.

In the wedding case July 19, 2015, near Trapper Creek, the pilot had just officiated at his daughter’s marriage. He flew over the crowd in a Cessna 206 to celebrate,  but instead crashed in the trees and died.

The investigator, Brice Banning, an enthusiastic pilot himself who has survived a crash, said every accident carries a lesson to be learned.

"For me, the motivation for this show is that I firmly believe if we can take pilots along with us on accidents and they can see what we do and apply it to their flying, we will reduce accidents in Alaska," Banning said.

The series will air Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern starting March 13 on the Smithsonian Channel.

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