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With 5 open NTSB investigations, Ravn Alaska operators under microscope

Colleen Mondor
Hageland Aviation was operating this Cessna 208 when it crashed outside St. Marys in November 2013, killing four and injuring six others. The National Transportation Safety Board is currently investigating four accidents and one incident involving Ravn Alaska air group members, including a fatal crash outside of Bethel Tuesday night, also operated by Hageland. Alaska State Troopers

The fatal crash Tuesday of a Cessna Caravan near Bethel is the latest in a string of accidents by longtime air taxi operator Hageland Aviation Services. Hageland -- which now operates as Ravn Connect and is part of the Ravn Alaska “family of airlines” -- has been involved in 29 accidents resulting in 23 deaths over the past 20 years. The latest accident is one of five ongoing National Transportation Safety Board investigations into commercial flights operated under the Ravn Alaska banner. 

In another recent accident, an aircraft operated by Hageland crashed outside of St. Marys in late November, killing the pilot and three passengers and leaving six other passengers with serious injuries.

The latest crash joins three other accidents and an incident -- the difference between an accident and an incident is determined by NTSB regulations and involves levels of damage and injury as determined by investigators -- involving Ravn Alaska air group members that are under active investigation by the NTSB. When reviewed as a group, they reveal a pattern of mishaps dating back more than 18 months, which have cumulatively resulted in six deaths.

A series of accidents

According to a preliminary NTSB report, the first of these mishaps occurred in September 2012 when an Era Aviation de Havilland DHC-8 departing Anchorage International Airport experienced “an uncommanded left roll and uncontrolled descent during climb at about 12,000 feet." The flight crew regained control at about 7,000 feet and returned to land. None of the 12 passengers or three crew members were injured.

Due to the size of the aircraft and the nature of the operation -- Era Aviation operates under the more-stringent Part 121 section of the Federal Aviation Regulations due to the size of its aircraft and passenger loads -- this incident was turned over to Washington, D.C.-based NTSB officials for investigation.

Then, in October 2013, an Era Aviation Beechcraft 1900 suffered a collapse of the nose and main landing gear while landing in Homer. The flight crew and 13 passengers were uninjured but the aircraft received substantial damage.

In discussing the events at Anchorage and Homer in a recent phone conversation, Washington D.C.-based NTSB public affairs officer Eric Weiss explained that the investigations will extend as far as possible to understand not only what happened, but why. This could include moving the investigation beyond the individual events and into the overall management of the air group. "If answering the question of why extends to management and the overall safety culture, we will look at that," said Weiss. "We will go wherever the investigation takes us."

On Nov. 22, another Beechcraft 1900, this one operated by Hageland Aviation, hit the elevated edge of the runway surface while landing at Badami Airport near Deadhorse. According to the preliminary report, the right main landing gear separated and the airplane slid along the runway surface, causing substantial damage. Weather in Badami at the time of the accident included heavy blowing snow and broken clouds at 1,000 feet, with a half-mile of visibility.

Five days later, Era Alaska Flight 1453 -- operated by Hageland Aviation -- departed Bethel and crashed within 40 minutes near St. Marys, resulting in those four fatalities and six injuries. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed at St. Marys when the flight was dispatched, with a ceiling of 300 feet and an overcast sky at the time of the crash. Despite conditions requiring instrument navigation, flight 1453 was operating under visual flight rules. The Badami, St. Marys and recent Bethel accident are all under investigation by the Anchorage NTSB office.

According to investigator Clint Johnson, those accidents are all in the fact-gathering stage. Once analysis of those facts has taken place, the NTSB will look at the carrier as a whole to consider, for example, if there are overall concerns with pilot training, maintenance, oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration or other factors.

"At this point we are working on a case-by-case basis," Johnson said.

The FAA has increased surveillance of the Hageland operation in Bethel since the St. Marys accident. While officials could not confirm any possible enforcement action against the company in the wake of the most recent fatal crash, the FAA asserted that its policy is to “explore all options to address our enforcement responsibilities."

Both Hageland Aviation and Era Aviation are cooperating with all the investigations.

Alaska Airlines 'unwinding' from Hageland

Ownership and operational control of the three air carriers under the Ravn Alaska umbrella is complex and deeply rooted in the companies' history. The first combining of resources between two members of the group came in 2008. The owners of Hageland Aviation Services -- Mike Hageland and Jim Tweto -- and the owner of Frontier Flying Service -- John Hajdukovich -- established a parent company named HoTh Inc. This company was formed to create a self-described “airgroup” where, according to the company website, “the parent company could acquire companies that have synergies with each other (to) market the combined services under a common brand.” State records show that presently HoTh Inc. is owned by Tweto (11 percent), Hageland (39 percent) and Robert Hajdukovich (50 percent).

HoTH Inc. owns Frontier Flying Service, Hageland Aviation Services and Era Aviation, the latter of which was purchased in 2009.

Each of the three companies have separate directors of operation and chief pilots, though Frontier and Era share a CEO in Robert Hajdukovich. The CEO of Hageland Aviation is James Hickerson. The FAA has also assigned individual Certificate Management Teams to each company with specific principal operations and maintenance inspectors and separate annual inspections.

Alaska Airlines currently partners with Era Alaska in a “code-sharing” relationship. This allows passengers to purchase tickets from a point of departure with Alaska Airlines all the way through to a destination operated by one of the Era Alaska air group members. This will likely change to Ravn Alaska soon as part of the Era Alaska rebranding effort.

This seamless scheduling and travel is part of the Alaska Airlines/Era Alaska relationship and based upon “consistent passenger service standards and procedures” for the duration of transport.

Hageland, however, will soon be removed from that equation. In an email, Alaska Airlines spokesperson Bobbie Egan wrote:

"Alaska Air Group maintains a comprehensive safety oversight program of all of our alliance partners. This includes operational safety focused assessments, regular monitoring, and meetings with these partner airlines. As part of this program, Alaska Air Group made the policy decision in December 2013 to begin unwinding our business partnership with Hageland Aviation, Inc. ... This business partnership will fully terminate this month."

Egan said that Hageland is the only Ravn Alaska member Alaska Airlines is terminating its relationship with.

Going forward

Hageland Aviation recently opened a new centralized operation center in Palmer that will weigh 25-30 risk factors prior to each flight as part of a new and enhanced risk management approach. Dispatchers at the center are in constant contact with pilots during their flights. This is unusual for a smaller operator -- referred to as Part 135 under Federal Aviation Regulations -- like Hageland. The center mirrors the one utilized by Era Aviation in Anchorage, and similar to those required of all Part 121 airlines.

As the five investigations continue, the operation and training standards of all of Ravn Alaska member airlines will likely receive more scrutiny from FAA and NTSB investigators. With Ravn Alaska's common ownership, common management and common reservation and scheduling systems, it presents a unique and complicated situation for accident investigators and enforcement officials.

Although Hageland Aviation aircraft may present in different livery or colors and the pilots may or may not wear uniforms to match those of Anchorage-based flight crews, the airline itself is owned and operated by the same group of individuals that owns and operates its sister companies. Since the 2008 combination of resources, there have been six Hageland Aviation accidents in addition to two fatality crashes, five of which occurred in the Bethel region. In fact, accidents involving Bethel-based aircraft have long dominated Hageland’s accident history, which includes crashes in such villages as Marshall, Scammon Bay, Kongiganak, Kwigillingok and Bethel itself. As an integral part of the group, that accident history has belonged first to Frontier Alaska and then Era Alaska and now, through the rebranding, Ravn Alaska.

As owners, the open accident and incident investigations are the collective responsibility of the HoTH board of directors. Ultimately, the current fatality crash, and the one in St. Marys, are just as much a part of Ravn Alaska’s future as they are of Hageland Aviation’s.

The probable cause report for the 2012 incident should be released later this year. The reports for 2013 accidents may extend into early 2015. All of the Ravn Alaska flights continue to operate as scheduled and the Hageland Aviation base in Bethel remains open.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the CEO of Hageland Aviation as James Dickerson.

The author of this article briefly worked for Frontier Flying Service in 1998, and leased aircraft to the company until 2010. Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com.