'Don't pull up,' pilot warned before midair collision

Lisa Demer
Pilot Scott Veal, 24, of Kenai, was killed on Sept. 2, 2011, when the Cessna 208 Caravan that he was flying collided with a Cessna 207 piloted by his girlfriend Kirsten Sprague, 26 of Idaho, and crashed into the tundra as they were returning to Bethel from separate remote villages in Western Alaska. The mid-air collision occurred about six miles north of Nightmute in a hilly area. The Cessna 207 was able to land safely a little over a mile away, east from the point of impact. Sprague walked away from the incident without apparent injury.

Moments before he was killed, one of the pilots involved in a midair crash on Sept. 2 suddenly maneuvered his plane over the other one, warned the other pilot not to pull up, then struck the second plane's right wing before nosediving to the tundra below, a preliminary investigation report says.

The two pilots were involved in "a close personal relationship" and had begun talking on "a prearranged, discreet radio frequency" just after they took off from separate Western Alaska villages that afternoon, the National Transportation Safety Board report released on Thursday says.

The report doesn't name the pilots but they previously have been identified by Alaska State Troopers as Kristen Sprague, flying a Cessna 207 for Ryan Air, and Scott Veal, flying a Cessna 208B Caravan for Grant Aviation. Representatives of both air services told the federal investigator the two were in a relationship.

The report describes Veal as an airline transport pilot and Sprague as a commercial pilot. They both were headed to Bethel along similar flight routes. Neither was carrying passengers. They were operating under visual flight rules.

Sprague, 26, of Idaho, took off from the airstrip in the Bering Sea village of Tununak around 1:15 p.m. About 10 minutes later, Veal, flying a bigger, faster plane, left from nearby Toksook Bay. He was 24 and was living in Kenai.

They agreed over the radio "to rendezvous for the flight back to Bethel," Sprague told NTSB investigator Clint Johnson. She was interviewed initially in Bethel, then a second time in Anchorage before flying home to Idaho.

They continued to talk over the radio as they cruised at about 1,200 feet above sea level. Veal was flying along the left side of her plane.

Then he "unexpectantly and unannounced climbed his airplane above, and overtop of her airplane," the new report says.

Sprague told Veal she couldn't see him and she was concerned about where he was.

"Whatever you do, don't pull up," he told her, according to the report.

The next thing she remembers is his plane hitting her right wing, the report says. Sprague then saw Veal's plane pass underneath her.

They were about nine miles north of Nightmute. It was about 1:35 p.m.

The bigger plane's descent was gradual at first, then steepened as the plane continued to the left and away from Sprague's plane. They told each other they thought they were going to crash.

"She said she watched as the 208B continued to descend, then it entered a steep, vertical, nose down descent, before it collided with the ground. She said a postcrash fire started instantaneously upon impact," the report said.

Veal's plane was largely consumed by fire. He died in the crash.

Trying to fly with a damaged right wing, Sprague struggled to maintain control. She found an area of rolling tundra for an emergency landing. The plane's stall horn sounded. The Cessna touched down on the soft ground and its landing gear collapsed, the report says. Her plane landed about a mile from where Veal's had gone down.

Wreckage from the bigger plane was strewn over a large area. The vertical stabilizer and rudder assembly were severed in the crash and found about a half mile from the main wreckage. Part of the smaller Cessna's wing was found near the rudder and stabilizer.

Generally, under visual flight rules, pilots are supposed to "see and be seen," said Mike Fergus, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA rules don't specify a certain distance that planes should stay apart, except to separate those heading east from those heading west by at least 1,000 feet altitude. That's to prevent head-on collisions, which isn't what happened in the Nightmute crash.

The rules are rooted in common sense. One says that "no person may operate an aircraft so close to another aircraft as to create a collision hazard." Another says planes shouldn't fly in formation, except when that's been arranged with the other pilots.

Pilots need to look around them, just as a driver on the road should check both directions before pulling into traffic, Fergus said.

Grant Aviation's chief pilot, James Miller, said Thursday that the company is cooperating with the NTSB and the FAA to determine the cause of the crash.

"Our thoughts are with Ms. Sprague and the Veal family. Scott was a good man and he will be missed by all that knew him," Miller said in an email.

The NTSB report is preliminary and doesn't lay blame for the crash. A final report is expected to be released in six to eight months.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

Anchorage Daily News
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