NTSB confirms pilot in fatal Merrill Field crash aborted landing

Zaz Hollander

The plane crash that killed two people at Merrill Field on Saturday came after air-traffic controllers told the pilot to “go around” because another plane was still on the runway, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report released Friday.

Pilot Robert Lilly, 31, and his girlfriend, 27-year-old Jessi Nelsen, died in the mid-afternoon crash that investigators say occurred after a “loss of engine power during a go-around.”

The report gives the basic facts of the crash investigation but does not indicate probable cause.

Lilly, a commercial pilot from Big Lake, was flying his own plane. He was about to start a new job with Homer Air, officials said. Nelsen, originally from Seward, worked at Spenard Roadhouse in Anchorage. She was also a longshorewoman and writer. Services for both were planned late this week.

Lilly and Nelsen took off from Wasilla for Merrill at about 3:10 p.m., 26 minutes before the crash occurred, according to the report. No flight plan was filed; that’s not unusual. It was a beautiful day in Anchorage: sunny, light winds, about 70 degrees.

Along with collecting weather data and examining the wreckage, NTSB investigators listened to recorded radio traffic between Lilly and Merrill Field Air Traffic Control Tower.
Controllers initially cleared Lilly to land at Merrill’s main east-west runway behind a Cessna 172, according to the preliminary report.

The Cessna 172 landed and controllers instructed the other pilot to “exit the runway, when able, for additional landing traffic,” according to the NTSB. “Shortly after, the controller instructed the accident pilot to go around but the accident pilot did not respond.”

Lilly didn’t respond to two more requests from controllers to make another pass, according to the report. It’s fairly common for controllers to tell a pilot to do a go-around, Clint Johnson, an NTSB investigator, said Friday.

Usually, however, pilots respond to any radio traffic from the control tower with a brief acknowledgement, Johnson said.

Lilly’s Cessna 150L stopped descending and continued to fly over the runway, the report states.

Multiple witnesses described the plane ”flying about 100 feet above runway 25, in a nose high attitude,” investigator-in-charge Joshua Cawthra wrote.

The plane’s angle got the attention of a number of pilots because the nose was higher than normal, Johnson said.

As the plane flew over the end of the runway, witnesses told the investigator they heard the engine quit. The plane made a steep left turn back toward the airport, rolled to the left and crashed in the grass almost 300 feet west of the runway, the report said. Debris scattered for 50 feet.

Bystanders helped pull Lilly and Nelsen from the plane. They were pronounced dead at Alaska Regional Hospital.

Next, investigators will conduct a detailed examination of the plane’s frame and engine, review toxicology results and look at Lilly’s work history and flying experience.

A final report could still be months away.


Anchorage Daily News