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Stevens plane crash: Federal investigators review pilot's health

Jill Burke,Craig Medred
View of the instrument panel as initially found.
National Transportation Safety Board photo
Cockpit before recovery.
National Transportation Safety Board photo
Cockpit before recovery (labels provided by the NTSB).
National Transportation Safety Board photo
Photographed from behind the airplane, the small red arrow indicates where the first part of the airplane (ventral fin) was found. The white arrows point to the imprints of the floats. The dashed line is a cut in the alders with the span of the left wing.
National Transportation Safety Board photo
Aft view of the airplane, showing tail control surfaces.
National Transportation Safety Board photo
Map of the accident site and the surrounding area.
National Transportation Safety Board map
The accident site is located in the upper left corner of this photograph.
National Transportation Safety Board photo
Close-up of the wing and fuselage at the accident site near Aleknagik, Alaska that took the lives of 5 of the 9 persons aboard, including former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens.
National Transportation Safety Board photo
The accident site near Aleknagik, Alaska that took the lives of 5 of the 9 persons aboard, including former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens.
National Transportation Safety Board photo
Aerial view of the aircraft accident site near Aleknagik, Alaska that took the lives of 5 of the 9 persons aboard, including former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens.
Alaska State Troopers photo
Preaccident view of the N455A airplane.
National Transportation Safety Board photo

The pilot of a plane that crashed last summer, killing former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and four others, was likely in control of the aircraft when it slammed into a mountainside in Southwest Alaska, according to federal accident files released Thursday.

The Federal Aviation Administration had grounded Alaska pilot Terry Smith for two years following a stroke he suffered in 2006. A review of whether Smith's health played a role in the Aug. 9, 2010, plane crash has been a part of the investigation, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which released hundreds of pages of facts, incident reports and witness statements as part of the agency's probe into the accident's cause.

One of the files says there is "solid indication that the airplane was not cruising at impact, but was climbing and maneuvering," indicating that Smith may have been trying to avoid the mountains.  A warning alert on the plane may have gone off four to six seconds prior to impact, according to NTSB documents.

The documents paint an investigation probing the 62-year-old Smith's health history, raising questions of whether he was fit to fly. In the hundreds of pages of data, NTSB investigators draw no conclusions about what caused the crash. An official ruling on whether Smith suffered a new health attack while in flight or suffered from a lingering impairment, if any, that might have affected his piloting skills and judgment is something that will be left to a five-member NTSB board to decide next month.

The crash claimed the lives of Smith, Stevens, lobbyist Bill Phillips, General Communication Inc. executive Dana Tindall, and Tindall’s 16-year-old daughter, Corey. Four people survived, including former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe and his 19-year-old son, Kevin; Washington, D.C., lobbyist Jim Morhard, and Phillips’s 13-year-old son, Willy.

The mountainside crash in Southwest Alaska, 20 miles north of the coastal fishing community of Dillingham, thrust the plane and its passengers into steep, remote terrain as poor weather began to settle in. The GCI-owned plane -- a 1957 DeHavilland DHC-3 Otter -- was ferrying guests from a lodge, also owned by the Anchorage-based telecommunications company, to the Nushagak River for silver salmon fishing.

For hours no one knew they were overdue or missing. It was discovered later that the plane's emergency transmitter lost its antennae in the crash. A quicker rescue would not have saved lives, according to the Alaska medical examiner, who determined that the deceased all died from blunt force trauma and could not have survived their injuries.

Smith was a career pilot, a former chief pilot for Alaska Airlines in Anchorage with thousands of hours of flight time under his belt.

PLANE CRASH: More coverage of the accident and Ted Stevens

GCI had hired Smith to replace the company's regular pilot at its lodge, where GCI has for years invited employees, clients, friends and sometimes politicians and regulators. GCI’s regular pilot unexpectedly "walked out" earlier that summer, and Smith was a natural choice to fill in, GCI president Ron Duncan said last summer. Smith had worked for GCI on and off for years, and he and other well-respected pilots had been brought in to fill the summer vacancy in shifts, Duncan said in 2010, adding that Smith knew the terrain and area around Dillingham well.

Leading up to the crash, Smith was grieving the loss of his son-in-law, an Air Force pilot killed when a military cargo plane crashed less than two weeks before.

CAUSE: Man, machine or weather?

It is the job of the NTSB to figure out if man, machine or weather brought the plane down. As part of that process, the agency delved into Smith's health and his medical history. Reports detail an exhaustive examination of a stroke he suffered in 2006. The stroke grounded the longtime pilot for two years, the minimum under FAA standards.

The search through the possible causes of a crash requires investigators to consider all eventualities. Did the plane's owner or operator fail in some way? Did equipment malfunction? Did federal regulations or guidelines miss something they could have or should have had control over?

Smith's health is a key part of the investigation. He had a family history of stroke and his wife suspected he might suffer from sleep apnea, according to NTSB records.

Sleep apnea has been linked to increased odds of stroke. A third autopsy of Smith performed by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology looked specifically for anatomic indications a stroke might have caused the crash, but found none. The NTSB summary of the medical report does not, however, rule out the possibility of problems related to stroke. It notes that after Smith's 2006 stroke he reported "his performance subpar...in the (flight) simulator...would feel like he was having to work unusually hard...situational awareness in the car was off."

The reports show Smith was examined by neurologists in Anchorage and Seattle who detected no obvious long-term problems associated with the 2006 stroke, but raised questions about the a genetic link to problems with stroke given a significant family history. The filings document Smith's struggle with motor-skill problems after his stroke. “One month after the stroke, he was pulled over by a police officer who thought incorrectly that he was inebriated,” his wife told NTSB investigators.

Smith 'slower than usual'?

Pilots familiar with Smith told investigators something seemed to have changed in the pilot after his stroke, although it was hard to pinpoint. Smith had become “sterile and flat, not very buoyant,” described one pilot. Another said he at one time seemed to be “just a little slower than usual," although not always.

Pilot Andy Durrett recalled that during a trip a month before the fatal crash, Smith was “real sharp,” seemed “totally normal” and had demonstrated “excellent recall memory.”

Part of the NTSB investigation also looks at how, specifically, Smith regained the medical clearances to fly, and how thorough that examination by the FAA -- the agency with the authority to determine flight status for pilots -- was.

The NTSB has in the past raised questions about how the FAA treats stroke.

FAA's 'inadequate oversight'

Earlier this month, the transportation board determined that the FAA's "inadequate oversight" of a pilot's "known medical condition" contributed to an accident in North Carolina. The pilot in question had a known stroke history. He suffered an attack while at the controls of a flight ambulance. No patients were on board, but as the pilot began to take the helicopter down for a landing, he lost control of his right arm, suffered slurred speech and was unable to recognize the main runway, even though a nurse on board pointed it out for him. While the helicopter was substantially damaged during the hard emergency landing in December, no one died.

The NTSB investigation into the helicopter's emergency landing found that although FAA medical records revealed the pilot had experienced a stroke four years earlier, "there was no evidence in the FAA records of any formal evaluation of the risk of a recurrent stroke for the pilot or of any formal neurology evaluation."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com and Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com. Reporter Ben Anderson contributed to this story.