Federal agency scrutinizes state aviation safety culture that led DPS official to resign

Zaz Hollander
Mel Nading pilots the Alaska State Trooper's Helo 1 on a flight over the 24th annual Talkeetna Bluegrass festival on Saturday, August 6, 2005 (about 4pm). Officials estimated about 1600 people were in attendance on Saturday afternoon. Stephen Nowers

Alaska's Public Safety Commissioner stands behind a 2009 decision to send a state plane to Kodiak for a group with agency connections despite the pilot's concerns about the weather.

The flight went off without incident, but a former high-ranking state aviation official told federal investigators it represents the kind of pressure pilots face within the state Public Safety Department.

The incident involving Commissioner Gary Folger came to light as National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine last year's fatal crash of Helo-1, the Alaska State Troopers rescue helicopter.

Federal investigators are scrutinizing the state's aviation safety culture, as indicated by numerous documents released Monday with 2,200 pages of fact-finding interviews and other reports.

A probable cause finding is expected by summer on the Helo-1 crash that killed well-known pilot Mel Nading, as well as Trooper Tage Toll and Carl Ober, the snowmachiner they flew into deteriorating weather to save.

Former state Department of Public Safety aircraft section supervisor Sherry Hassell told investigators she struggled to change flight safety practices, according to a 78-page transcript of an interview with her from last May as part of the NTSB crash inquiry.

Asked for any specific examples of pilots forced to fly in bad weather, Hassell easily recalled just one: that 2009 transport flight to Kodiak and back that Folger ordered when he headed the Alaska Wildlife Troopers.

Folger, in an email Tuesday, acknowledged his role in the trip but said the weather had improved by the time he recommended the flight go ahead.

"I have never made someone fly, it's entirely up to the pilot," Folger wrote.

Hassell was new on the job in 2009 when headquarters requested a state Cessna Caravan fly to Kodiak to pick up family members of a "former Public Safety person (who) had a mountain named for them down in Kodiak," she told federal investigators. Commercial flights out of Kodiak were overbooked.

The Afognak Native Corp. in January 2009 named an Afognak Island mountain after the late Glenn Godfrey, killed in 2002 not long after he retired as public safety commissioner. Hassell's comments don't name the Godfrey family; Folger didn't respond to an email asking for clarification about the family involved.

Hassell told veteran state pilot Rod Wilkinson about the mission, according to the transcript. He checked the weather and "said the weather was not good for going and so he didn't want to go."

Hassell passed that message to headquarters, she said. "And they said he needs to get in the plane and go was pretty much the response. And I was pretty much shocked because, you know, the pilot was like a 30,000-hour pilot. He is very experienced."

Wilkinson did make the trip after saying something like, "well, then I will go over and take a look at it," Hassell told investigators. "But that, I felt like it was direct pressure and very inappropriate and I was pretty shocked."

The order came from Folger, she said.

Folger, in an email Tuesday, said he "pulled the weather for both current and forecast" several hours after Hassell told him weather prevented the plane from flying. He thought the trip was doable. That's what he said he told her.

"I don't recall ever saying this trip had to be done," he wrote. "That would be unlike me to do this, and the final call is up to the pilot."

Wilkinson didn't respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Folger said that in his memory, "this was the one and only time I was ever asked" to make a decision about a flight and whether to go in bad weather.

A department spokeswoman said the commissioner would not respond to additional questions, including why he chose to get directly involved in this particular flight.

More broadly, Hassell said in her interview, a reluctance to embrace changes linked to aviation safety ultimately led to her resignation in March 2013, several weeks before the fatal crash.

There wasn't enough money coming from headquarters for training, she said. Budget constraints forced the cancellation of a 2010 night vision goggle training that Nading requested. A 2012 annual pilot safety seminar was also cancelled.

Nading was wearing night vision goggles during the fatal crash. Aviation experts say pilots wearing them can inadvertently fly into bad weather without realizing they need to be relying on cockpit instruments instead of outside landmarks.

Hassell told investigators she also struggled to get commanders and pilots interested in aviation safety programs such as the one offered by the Medallion Foundation.

Hassell felt she had little authority and didn't see the situation changing, she said in her NTSB interview. The last straw that prompted her retirement was when a trooper pilot at a remote site nosed over a Super Cub, and then he and his supervisor -- "neither of whom was an airframe and powerplant mechanic" -- changed the propeller and flew back to base.

Because of last year's crash, the public safety agency is making major changes to the way it handles flights, according to Col. Jim Cockrell, director of the Alaska State Troopers.

Cockrell said changes include ending the use of night vision goggles; requiring pilots and sometimes their supervisors to make search and rescue decisions based on specific weather conditions; and adding new limits on duty and standby time.

"We tell all our pilots that it's their decision whether to fly or not to fly," he said on Monday. "It's OK to say no."

The aircraft section has 43 aircraft and more than 50 pilots, both commissioned troopers and civilians, according to the Public Safety Department. Pilots average a total of about 6,500 flying hours each year.

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