The pilot in a fatal plane crash at Big Lake’s airport last week was seen leaving an Anchorage bar with his female passenger early Sunday about an hour before the accident occurred, according to a preliminary report released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The crash killed 50-year-old Anchorage attorney Christopher Cyphers, the pilot of the single-engine Piper Comanche, and left his passenger with serious injuries from which she is still recovering.
Cyphers was managing partner of the Frontier Law Group, a law and mediation firm with offices in Anchorage.
Investigators say they won’t know whether alcohol was a factor in the crash until toxicology results come back in two or three weeks. Any information won’t emerge publicly until the NTSB releases a probable cause report in six to nine months.
“We’re still in the formative stages of this investigation,” said Clint Johnson, NTSB’s Alaska Region chief.
Witnesses told the NTSB that they saw the pilot and his passenger at a bar in Anchorage early Sunday morning, according to the preliminary report. Various patrons told investigators that Cyphers and his passenger left the bar at 1:19 a.m., accounts confirmed by archived surveillance video.
A family member told investigators that Cyphers “had been in Anchorage for a social visit” before returning home to Big Lake, according to the report.
Johnson said the agency hopes to talk with the survivor within the next week to get a first-hand account of what happened. Investigators will examine the plane’s engine and other parts for any mechanical defects and will weigh other factors, including weather, as well.
Here’s what the report details about the accident flight:
Cyphers left Anchorage’s Merrill Field at 2:02 a.m. without filing a flight plan. The night was dark and visual flight rules were in effect. A radar track indicates that the plane headed north toward Big Lake Airport, then turned west.
Weather at the time at Wasilla was described as five-knot winds from the east, 10-mile visibility and a 10,000-foot ceiling.
A GPS receiver recovered from the wreckage indicates that the plane made an initial approach on a runway toward the lake but then climbed to 800 or 900 feet instead of landing and flew west for about a mile before making a 180-degree left turn. It came in for an approach on the same runway but in the opposite direction.
The plane first crashed into birch trees about 40 feet up and 50 feet south of the runway and then collided with the ground “in a nose low attitude” and came to rest upright on gravelly terrain along a road.
It’s not clear whether Cyphers actually touched down on his first approach, Johnson said.
The NTSB and Alaska State Troopers initially received conflicting reports as to whether the crash occurred on takeoff or landing, officials say.
The agency’s phones “lit up” after lead investigator Brice Banning told reporters he was looking for witnesses to resolve the confusion, Johnson said. That’s when the information about the bar emerged.
One witness also described a possible engine fire. Investigators found no physical signs of a fire on the fuselage, though it’s possible there was an exhaust backfire or something else that didn’t leave a mark, Johnson said.
A state courts database doesn't show any alcohol-related convictions involving Cyphers. But he was cited by an Alaska State Trooper on July 29 after the trooper found him parked on the median near the Parks Highway and Museum Drive outside Wasilla, according to the citation filed in Palmer court.
Trooper Lance Silva also cited Cyphers for refusing to submit to a breath test, a charge sometimes seen in driving-under-the-influence arrests, though no DUI charge is involved here. The trooper described Cyphers as having watery eyes and a slight odor of alcohol on his breath, "consistently chewing gum and mint chew" and looking away, according to the citation.
The case had not been decided at the time of his death; Cyphers had entered a plea of not guilty, according to the database.