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Bad weather likely factor in Alaska plane crash that killed Australian couple

Ben Anderson

A preliminary accident report on an Interior Alaska plane crash last month that killed two Australians cited worsening weather and a pilot unqualified to fly in such conditions as likely contributors to the crash.

Stephen Knight, the 64-year-old pilot, and his wife and passenger, 60-year-old Gillian Knight, died July 18 en route to Fairbanks from Fort Yukon. According to the report, issued by the National Transportation Safety Board, Stephen Knight had contacted air traffic control in Anchorage requesting a switch to instrumental navigation of the Piper Saratoga small plane at about 4:41 p.m. When the tower replied, about five minutes later, there was no response from the aircraft and personnel noticed that the plane had dropped off the radar. It was reported overdue about a half-hour later.

The report noted that Knight was a "non-instrument rated private pilot," meaning that he would have been flying beyond his qualifications upon switching to an instrument-based flight plan. Typically, pilots can navigate either by visual means or by instruments, though instruments have a different, more rigorous set of qualifications.

The NTSB said that the Knights were the third plane in a party of three aircraft flying from Canada's Northwest Territories to Fairbanks that day. The first of the three planes was able to fly directly to Fairbanks, but inclement weather forced the other two aircraft to route through Fort Yukon to refuel.

"After departing Fort Yukon, the two airplanes again encountered marginal weather conditions," the report said. "The pilot of one of the two airplanes requested, and received an instrument flight rules (IFR) clearance to Fairbanks. The accident airplane continued (visual flight rules), and the accident pilot reported to the pilot of the other airplane that he had found 'a good VFR track.'"

After being reported overdue, a Civil Air Patrol flight was able to spot the aircraft wreckage on the ground about 43 miles north of Fairbanks. An Alaska Air National Guard helicopter was able to drop a pararescue jumper to the ground later that night to confirm two victims in the crash, though burning wreckage prevented recovery of the bodies.

The NTSB was grounded in Fairbanks while they waited for the weather to clear to reach the site. The trail of wreckage from the crash stretched for about a quarter-mile, the report says.

Stephen and Gillian Knight were the owners of a prominent Australian home building company, Choice Homes. Their son, Troy Knight, has taken over the business in the wake of his parents' passing, according to the company's website

The plane had been rented from a flying club in California. The other pilots told the NTSB that they traveled to North America every year or two and were flying from California to Alaska on this particular trip. NTSB investigator Chris Shaver described all the pilots as "fairly experienced."

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com