Merrill Field plane crash occurred after aborted landing, says NTSB

nherz@adn.comAugust 25, 2013 

Saturday's plane crash at Merrill Field that killed a pilot and his girlfriend occurred after an aborted landing, not on takeoff, according to an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Robert Lilly, 31, and Jessi Nelsen, 27, were killed in the crash, police said Sunday.

Lilly, a licensed commercial pilot flying his own plane, had been approaching Merrill Field for a landing on its main east-west runway Saturday afternoon when an air traffic controller told him to go around, said the NTSB investigator, Josh Cawthra.

Witnesses said they had seen Lilly's single-engine Cessna 150L climbing up from the runway heading west. It appeared to lose power as it tried to make a left turn, they said, and they assumed it was taking off.

"It looked like a takeoff," Cawthra said. "You're at a low altitude, you're applying power. That's where the misconstrued data was."

Cawthra said he was told the landing was aborted because of traffic on the runway, but he said that information was unconfirmed. A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration said Sunday he did not have any information about the air traffic controller's instructions.

"In most cases, this becomes part of the investigation, and the FAA does not discuss it while the investigation is ongoing," said the spokesman, Allen Kenitzer.

Cawthra said he expects to learn more after reviewing transmissions from air traffic controllers.

Lilly was from Big Lake and had worked as a commercial pilot in Kodiak flying Cessna 206 planes, said his aunt, Barbara Brown.

After a 1967 Matchless motorcycle left for him by his grandfather, Lilly's own Cessna was his second-most prized possession, said John Lilly, Robert's father.

"He maintained it impeccably," John Lilly said. "He cleaned it all the time; he polished the windows."

Robert Lilly first piloted a plane solo at age 14, and "he's been flying ever since," his father said. Both John Lilly and his own father are pilots as well.

Lilly and Nelsen had been dating for more than a year, and the couple often flew together in his plane, said Lana Ramos, who worked with Nelsen at the Spenard Roadhouse.

Nelsen was originally from Seward, but had worked off and on at the Roadhouse as a waitress and bartender since the restaurant opened four years ago, Ramos said. The staff at the restaurant had come to know Lilly well, too, she said.

"They were super in-love, and naturally," said Ramos. "They were just crazy about each other."

In Seward, Nelsen was "beloved," Ramos said. She was deeply involved in the arts, helping to organize a festival and reviewing music and shows for a local newspaper, the Seward Journal, according to Vanta Shafer, the Journal's owner.

"She was extremely meticulous; she loved her subject," Shafer said. "This was her passion."

Nelsen had been studying journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Shafer said, and had also written for the Anchorage Press. But she returned to Seward frequently to work as a longshorewoman, loading and unloading cruise ships, Shafer said.

Gail Burnard, another friend of Nelsen's, described her as "young, and funky, and hip -- but kind of old-fashioned, too."

"She wrote thank-you notes, and made a point to go visit friends," said Burnard. "She just had a very nice way with people."

By Sunday evening, the Cessna's wreckage had been moved away from the crash site to what Cawthra, the NTSB investigator, described as a secure location outdoors, where he would examine the plane's engine and structure.

It will take the NTSB months before it pinpoints the cause of the crash, he said.

A handheld GPS had been found in the wreckage, Cawthra said, and a lab will analyze it to see if it had recorded any data from the flight.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.

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