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NTSB report: Witnesses of fatal crash near St. Marys reported plane flying too low

Jerzy Shedlock
Alaska State Troopers

A National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report of a fatal plane crash near the rural Alaska village of St. Marys said witnesses at the community’s airport were "concerned about the direction and altitude" of the airplane as it flew overhead shortly before slamming into the ground, killing four people.

The Hageland Aviation flight bound for Mountain Village and St. Marys with 10 Alaskans aboard crashed just four miles from the latter village on Nov. 29. The pilot of the Cessna 208B Caravan, along with three passengers -- including a 5-month-old infant -- died in the crash.

At 6:24 p.m. on a Friday night, the Cessna crashed about one mile southeast of St. Marys airport, the report said. The plane was operating as a scheduled commuter flight under visual flight rules, a set of regulations during which pilots in generally clear and calm weather opt to fly by sight. However, the weather around St. Marys called for flight by the aircraft's instruments.

An NTSB spokesperson did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday.

Emergency responders reported temperatures at the site floating around 10 degrees, with mild winds. Visibility was very low, said one airport employee, as a responding medevac plane couldn’t see the runway at St. Marys until it flew within about 1 1/2 miles of the airport. Cloud cover sat as low as 300 feet around the time of the crash.

The Cessna Caravan departed from Bethel, a regional hub in Western Alaska, at 5:41 p.m. bound for Mountain Village and then St. Marys, but “due to deteriorating weather,” the report said, the flight changed course and headed for St. Marys first.

Witnesses on the ground in St. Marys reported seeing the Cessna fly over the airport at a low altitude, traveling southeast. They continued to watch the plane fly away from the airport until its beacon disappeared.

Worried about the plane’s elevation and direction, the witnesses tried contacting the plane’s pilot but didn’t get a response. Then, over the radio, another airplane reported there was an emergency locator transmitter going off near the village, the reports said. Company software was used to check the last known location of the downed plane, and a search was initiated.

An hour after the search kicked off, the plane was located, and rescue personnel confirmed three dead among the plane’s wreckage. The fourth person to die as a result of the crash succumbed to injuries after being transported to the local health clinic. By the time LifeMed responders reached the site, residents of St. Marys and Mountain Village had already gathered around the wreckage. They’ve been credited with prolonging passengers’ survival.

With the survivors flown to Anchorage for medical treatment and villagers attempting to recover from the tragedy -- all of the surviving passengers call Mountain Village home -- NTSB investigators struggled to get to the crash site due to poor weather. They arrived on Dec. 1.

The report said the plane’s wreckage was in an open area of snow-covered tundra. The Cessna struck the ground at the top of a ridge then traveled another 200 feet before coming to rest in an upright position. It suffered “substantial damage to the fuselage, empennage (tail), and wings.”

The plane was not equipped, nor was it required to be equipped, with a cockpit voice recorder or flight data recorder, the NTSB reported.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms.