Pilots communicating, flying together before midair crash

INVESTIGATION: FAA told they lost sight of each other heading for Bethel.

September 4, 2011 

The deadly crash Friday between two planes headed to Bethel from western Alaska villages was Alaska's third midair crash in less than two months but was remarkably different from the others.

In the earlier two collisions, the pilots didn't see one another until it was too late, federal investigators have said. In Friday's crash, the two pilots were traveling together in separate small, commercial planes to the hub community, a federal investigator said Sunday.

Kristen Sprague, 26, was flying a Cessna 207 operated by rural freight carrier Ryan Air, according to Alaska State Troopers. She was able to safely land the damaged plane.

Troopers said Scott Veal, 24, of Kenai was flying the other plane, a Cessna 208 Caravan operated by air taxi and cargo carrier Grant Aviation. Veal was killed when his plane crashed nose first into the ground and burst into flames. Each was the only person on board.

Veal was from Southern California and always dreamed of becoming an Alaska bush pilot, his grandfather, Robert Veal, said.

"It's in the family. His father and myself are both flight instructors," the grandfather said by phone from Winchester, Calif.

Clint Johnson, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, said he was able to get an outline of what happened after speaking with Sprague and other pilots as well as flying to the crash site. The incident happened about six miles north of the village of Nightmute, southwest of Bethel.

Sprague, who lives in Idaho, told Johnson that Veal was her boyfriend, the investigator said. Veal was going through a divorce, Johnson said Grant's chief pilot told him.

The pilots took off from different villages Friday afternoon and were communicating on a prearranged radio frequency while in the air, Johnson said.

Sprague had taken off from the Bering Sea village of Tununak. She had delivered some freight and was headed to Bethel with about 50 pounds of aluminum cans for a recycling program, according to Wilfred Ryan, president of Ryan Air.

Veal departed from nearby Toksook Bay. Efforts to speak with a Grant representative were unsuccessful.

Both planes were headed to Bethel.

"They meet up in the air," Johnson said. "There's some maneuvering that's done en route at about 1,200 feet (above sea level). The 207 pilot loses track of where the 208 is."

Sprague remembered saying something over the radio to the effect of "I can't see you, Scott."

"The next thing she knows is his airplane strikes her right wing, and nearly severs the right wing," Johnson said.

They were maybe 800 feet above the ground, Johnson said.

The bigger plane passed underneath the 207 and came out on the left side of it, Johnson said. Sprague saw it spiral down, hit the tundra, and burst into flames, Johnson said. It happened just after 1:30 p.m., he said, earlier than what troopers initially reported.

With one wing seriously damaged, Sprague had limited control of the plane, Johnson said. She made an emergency landing on soft rolling tundra, maybe a mile away. She wasn't hurt.

Her ability to land the plane under those circumstances shows discipline, Ryan, the air service president, said. "We're sad about the results with the other aircraft but pleased with what Kristen was able to do to get down safely."

Johnson said it's too early in the investigation to blame the crash on pilot error.

The Ryan plane was equipped with a Capstone system, which collects data and provides the pilot with a dynamic display of the terrain. The NTSB still needs to review that data, Johnson said. The larger Grant plane didn't have such a system, he said. Not much was left of that aircraft, other than the tail section, Johnson said. Wreckage was strewn over a half mile or more.

Johnson said he's researching whether any specific Federal Aviation Administration rules address a situation in which planes are traveling together.

Generally "it's incumbent upon each pilot to see and avoid other aircraft. Period," the investigator said. Ryan said a pilot who wants to pass must go to the right and above the other plane.

The first in this summer's trio of mid-air crashes occurred July 10. A Piper Navajo and a Cessna 206 were flying toward each other when they hit in Lake Clark Pass. Both pilots were able to land safely in Anchorage. The 13 people aboard the two planes were uninjured.

On July 30, two float planes collided in the air near Trapper Creek, killing an Alaska family of four aboard a Cessna 180. The other plane, a Cessna 206, was flown by Kevin Earp. He's a veteran Alaska Airlines pilot who told investigators he saw the smaller plane coming at him from the right, but it was too late.

They are all midair crashes. "But the fact of the matter is there are some different twists in this one," Johnson said.


Reporter Casey Grove contributed to this story. Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.