The pilot of a plane that crashed in Denali National Park last year, killing a wolf researcher and injuring the pilot, told investigators that a downdraft struck his plane just before it went down, according to a new National Transportation Safety Board report.
It remains unclear if the passenger Gordon Haber, a noted wildlife biologist and advocate for wolves, died as a result of the crash impact or the flames just after, according to the report. Pilot Dan McGregor's Cessna 185 left a debris trail about 160 feet long, according to the report.
The fire was so hot it burned much of the plane's aluminum fuselage and right wing and part of the left wing, wrote NTSB investigator Josh Cawthra.
Oct. 14, 2009, was a Wednesday, and Haber was tracking radio signals from collars on members of the Toklat Wolfpack, inside the park.
McGregor flew them to near the east fork of the Toklat River, inside the park about 28 miles west of Healy, the pilot told investigators.
He made a couple of "S" turns while approaching the area where they hoped to see wolves along the west side of the river. The Cessna passed over a ridge, flying about 500 to 800 feet above the ground, and McGregor turned back toward the area they hoped to observe, he told the NTSB.
Unexpected turbulence struck as he was making the turn, McGregor said. At first, he straightened the wings, pushed on the throttle to give the engine full power, and then he turned a bit more to the left, trying to avoid the approaching ridge, he said.
The downdraft continued to push the plane down, McGregor said. The plane sheared off the tops of trees 30 and 40 feet high just before the crash at about 2:30 p.m., according to the report.
McGregor said he blacked out as the plane burst into flames. When he came too, he jumped out of the cockpit and yelled to Haber to get out. McGregor didn't hear Haber yell anything and tried to get to him through a baggage door, he told investigators, but the flames forced him away.
McGregor stayed near the wreckage overnight in freezing temperatures, the report says. The next day McGregor walked seven miles up a stream to a road, another nine miles on the road to where he met two campers, and then to their car about five miles farther.
An Alaska State Trooper who traveled to the crash site that day saw human remains in the cockpit, but apparently couldn't tell how many people were dead before poor weather rolled in and forced his helicopter to leave the area.
Tests of the Cessna's engine after mechanics replaced parts damaged in the crash showed it had probably been in good working condition before the crash, according to the NTSB report.
McGregor's plane was reportedly equipped with an emergency locator transmitter, but no locator signals were ever received, according to the report.
The wrecked plane's locator beacon used an out-of-date, analog frequency, something the NTSB hopes to prevent in the future, the report notes. In February 2009, the Air Force Rescue Command Center stopped monitoring the old frequency after recommendations from various aviation agencies to pilots to upgrade their locator systems to those with a digital signal, according to the report.
The NTSB issued a recommendation to the Federal Aviation Administration, which could require planes to use the newer locators. As of this month, the FAA has not mandated the newer locator transmitters, the report noted.
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By CASEY GROVE