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NTSB releases documents on Alaska State Troopers helicopter crash that killed 3

Zaz Hollander
Mel Nading pilots the Alaska State Troopers Helo 1 on a flight over the 24th annual Talkeetna Bluegrass Festival on Saturday, August 6, 2005. Nading died in a crash in 2013.
Stephen Nowers
Veteran Alaska State Trooper pilot Mel Nading with Helo-1 in 2011.
Alaska State Troopers

WASILLA --A video camera mounted inside Helo-1 captured the last minutes of an Alaska State Troopers rescue helicopter's last flight before a deadly crash in March 2013.

The crash killed well-known pilot Mel Nading along with passengers Trooper Tage Toll and Carl Ober, the injured snowmachiner the men flew out to rescue in the area of Larson Lake.

A description of what investigators saw on that video is among the 2,200 pages of documents based on interviews with 34 people released Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board. The release of such a deluge of documents marks an unusual practice reserved only for major investigations such as the crash that killed U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.

The rescue helicopter's crash is the first captured by video camera, safety officials say.

Investigators watched the video -- it's not publicly available -- and wrote a spare transcript based on the images.

Takeoff, at 11:13 p.m. March 30. Everything seems normal. No blowing snow. Nading's night vision goggles are down over his face. He climbs, banks, makes a few turns.

The first sign of trouble comes about five minutes later. The helicopter starts climbing even as its airspeed drops. At 550 feet off the ground, airspeed drops to zero.

The last minute of the transcript describes an erratic, out-of-control flight as the helicopter takes a contorted path through the sky, an 85-degree roll, an 800-foot altimeter reading, followed by one at 500. A digital image built around the helicopter's path looks like a rollercoaster: Helo-1 rises, makes a complete circle, goes back the way it came, then zigs and zags back and forth before tumbling to the ground.

The helicopter was destroyed in the crash and subsequent fire, according to investigators.

The documents released Monday don't assign a cause to the crash.

Investigators in the NTSB's Alaska offices knew Nading and Toll, and recused themselves from the case, Alaska region chief Clint Johnson said Monday. A team from the agency's Washington, D.C. headquarters is conducting the investigation.

The agency is expected to release a final report that includes a probable cause of the crash by summer if not sooner, Johnson said.

STUCK SNOWMACHINER

Ober called 911 at 7:35 p.m. the night of the crash. His snowmachine went off the track into a ditch and was stuck in the snow under a major power line about 12 miles from Talkeetna, according to the NTSB's operations report. He said he'd bruised his ribs but seemed more worried about getting hypothermic.

Troopers tried to find some locals who could help with a rescue mission but nobody was available, the report said.

Mike Wood, who lives at a remote cabin six miles north of Talkeetna, told investigators he talked with an "almost impatient" sounding Toll who asked if he could search for Ober. Wood, with a "horrible" mix of rain and snow starting to come down and a 30-mile trip ahead, talked with two other friends also experienced in backcountry travel, including a Denali National Park and Preserve range, he told investigators. They urged him not to go on his own.

Toll called back and asked "are you in or out?" according to the NTSB narrative of the interview with Wood. "When Mike said he was not comfortable going out to look for Carl on his own, Toll responded, 'that's alright. I'll get the helo on it,' and quickly ended the call. Mike was bothered by Toll's attitude and felt that he was in a hurry or rush to get the situation taken care of."

A troopers search and rescue coordinator called Nading at 8:19 p.m., the report said. The pilot said he'd check the weather before accepting the mission, then called back to say he'd go.

Nading's wife told investigators he checked the weather upstairs and came down dressed for a flight. "She asked about the weather and he said it was 'good,'" the report stated.

Investigators say there's no record of what weather briefing Nading accessed. Area forecasts predicted light rain or snow and visibility down to four miles at times.

He left Anchorage at 9:17 p.m., landed at Sunshine - near Talkeetna along the Parks Highway - to pick up Toll at 9:42 p.m. Two witnesses 10 miles southwest of Larson Lake reported rain and sleet when the helicopter flew overhead around 10:30 p.m. That changed to snow by 11 p.m., with the snow coming down like "a son of a gun," according to an interview related in a meteorological report by NTSB investigator Paul Suffern.

The men landed, picked up Ober and dug out his machine, and got back in the helicopter for the short flight to Sunshine and an ambulance for the injured man.

Toll's wife told investigators in late July 2013 that her husband, a former fixed-wing pilot for the troopers, "loved to fly" with Nading.

She didn't know anything might be wrong that March night until her husband didn't come home for dinner, according to a brief summary of an NTSB interview with her. "(S)he had placed a call to him and was not able to reach him."

FLYING IN GOGGLES

The combination of the goggles and bad weather conditions can sometimes lead to a phenomenon called "inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions" - a disorienting situation requiring a quick switch from relying on visible landmarks around the helicopter to flying by using only the instruments inside.

The goggles can let pilots see through fog or haze.

Instrument flying conditions were reported in the area at the time of the crash, according to one of the main NTSB reports to emerge Monday focusing on operations and human performance.

Aviation experts recommend practicing for "inadvertent entry" with simulators and ground instruction.

The troopers had no formal night vision goggle training program, according to another pilot interviewed for the report. Nading was the only person he "ever qualified within the department to fly goggles and that was based on his previous military experience."

Other than the "inadvertent IMC" operations training given as part of his initial night goggle training in 2003, Nading had received no instrument flight training in a helicopter since joining the Alaska Department of Public Safety in December 2000, according to the operations report.

The NTSB documents include three reports of accidents or other incidents in Nading's flight history, the most serious involving a 2006 aborted takeoff on the west side of Cook Inlet that a review blamed on pilot error.

That accident also involved a situation where instrument flight conditions prevailed - whiteout conditions were reported - and Nading wore night vision goggles, the report said. Taking off from the west side of Cook Inlet, blowing snow obscured Nading's vision and he "lost all visual reference with the surface." The tail rotor guard and vertical stabilizer hit the surface of the lake, and Nading aborted the takeoff. No one was injured, though the helicopter was damaged. A state review board determined that pilot error caused the accident.

GLOWING REVIEWS

Rave reviews of Nading and gratitude from rescued people and the families also pepper the NTSB documents released Monday.

Nading had more than 8,000 flight hours in a helicopter, the main operations report said. An observer from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group who flew more than 300 search and rescue missions with him described him as an excellent pilot who did not take risks flying in bad weather and turned around if the weather soured mid-flight. Numerous other people described Nading as careful, professional, safe and committed to the rescue mission.

Jim Stocker, a Palmer taxidermist, wrote an email thanking Nading for a September 2012 rescue on the Talkeetna River.

Stocker, his wife and a friend got trapped by rising water after landing their Super Cubs on a gravel bar. An Air National Guard Pave Hawk helicopter tried to reach them but got turned back by weather. Nading stayed up all night and checked the weather until he saw "a weather window on the radar," according to the NTSB operations report. He launched at 3 a.m., flew a different route than the Pave Hawk did, and scooped the trio off the river.

"He landed in the water. He just lowered his skids real slow until he hit bottom," Stocker said by phone Monday. "It was real decisive and he was real calm about things. He threw the door open, he kind of looked at me, and he said, 'Are you all still here?'"

Stocker, who spoke at Nading's memorial service before what he estimated as 700 to 1,000 people, said he and his wife were just talking about Nading Sunday night.

"The guy was beyond good," he said. "He was like a Mario Andretti of the flying world."

 

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com