Troopers change pilot policies in aftermath of crash

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- Even before federal investigators determine a cause of the fatal crash last year involving an Alaska State Troopers helicopter, the Alaska Department of Public Safety changed the way pilots handle rescue and law enforcement missions around the state, according to Col. Jim Cockrell, who took over as director of the troopers in July.

Under the new policies, pilots are no longer allowed to use night vision goggles, Cockrell said. The troopers have implemented a schedule for flight hours and duty time. The main pilot, Ken Riser, has three pilots as back up so he doesn't have to put himself on standby for off-hour flights. If the pilot decides the weather is questionable based on new guidelines for "fairly strict weather minimums," then he contacts a supervisor to make the final go or no-go decision, Cockrell said.

The troopers have turned down several missions since July, including several night missions and a body recovery at a fatal crash involving a moose hunter in the Alaska Range, he said. "Flight safety is a very important aspect of our division."

A retired aircraft section supervisor for the state Department of Public Safety told federal investigators looking into last year's crash that the agency had broad issues making sure pilots complied with flight safety procedures and didn't feel pressure to fly on rescues in bad weather or other risky conditions.

Sherry Hassell's comments were part of the massive document release Monday from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Mel Nading, the pilot killed in last year's crash, was often on standby and didn't like taking too much time off, the documents show.

Hassell also told investigators that pilots as well as commanders also had little interest in participating in the Medallion Foundation's aviation safety program. She mentioned attending a high-level Medallion dinner alone as the governor handed out awards and people asked why no other public safety officials attended. The former flight instructor and air taxi pilot in Southeast, later took a job as an auditor with Medallion.

On paper, she supervised Nading, Hassell said. But in practice, the troopers' search-and-rescue coordinator did, talking with the pilot before he flew on missions. Another pilot in the Bethel area also reported to troopers rather than to her, she said. Hassell described a situation where she contacted the Bethel detachment commander to have a pilot come to Anchorage for training but was told he "belonged" to the detachment and wouldn't be making the trip.

Still, throughout her testimony, Hassell consistently praised Nading as a pilot and a person.

"(My) whole impression of Mel was that he was a very careful, cautious, and generous pilot," she said in the interview, less than two weeks after the deadly Talkeetna crash. "And I still think of him that way."