The National Transportation Safety Board issued a pair of safety recommendations Thursday, including one urgent recommendation, directed at the daily operations of HoTH, Inc. -- parent company of Hageland Aviation, Era Alaska and Frontier Flying Service -- as well as the oversight of those operations by the Federal Aviation Administration.
In the first recommendation, designated as urgent, the FAA has been directed to "conduct a comprehensive audit of the regulatory compliance and operational safety programs in place at operators owned by HoTH, Inc." and to "ensure that permanent corrective action is implemented for all adverse findings." The audit should include flight operations, training, maintenance and inspection, and safety management programs, the NTSB recommendation said, and should be conducted by a team from outside Alaska.
NTSB Alaska Chief Clint Johnson said the agency had requested teams from outside the state in order to provide a fresh look at the situation.
The second recommendation directs the FAA to conduct a comprehensive audit of the its own oversight of HoTH, Inc., and its carriers, including "a review of inspector qualifications, turnover, working relationships between the FAA and operators owned by HoTH, Inc., and workload to determine whether staffing is sufficient." That audit should also be conducted by a team from outside Alaska, the NTSB said.
The carriers owned by HoTH, Inc. are in the process of rebranding under the Ravn Alaska umbrella. Era will become Corvus Airlines, while Hageland and Frontier will become Ravn Connect. All three operate collectively as one air group and serve the same schedule. Hageland Aviation operates 58 aircraft under Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. Era Aviation operates 12 aircraft.
In a statement issued Thursday, Ravn CEO Bob Hajdukovich said:
"Safety is the number-one priority for Ravn Air Group. Our parent company HoTH, Inc., is Alaskan owned and deeply understands the gravity of the responsibility of providing safe and essential air transportation services to the communities we live in. Alaskans are not only challenged with weather and environment, but our cities and villages continue to lack basic infrastructure and resources that the rest of the country enjoys. Keeping our employees and our passengers safe always comes first. Hearts ache across our whole family of companies due to the recent tragedies.
"The timing of the NTSB request for comprehensive audits is a step behind our own work. We have already completed or are in the process of completing an independent audit of Hageland Aviation. All of the factors that the NTSB mentions in its letter have been actively addressed by not only the Ravn Air Group, but by the Federal Aviation Administration and external auditors."
As reported last month, Hageland Aviation is currently the object of three open accident investigations. In its recommendation letter, the NTSB also noted two closed investigations that contributed to their findings. Specifically, these accidents include:
• On Dec. 3, 2012, a Cessna 208 made a forced landing shortly after taking off from Mekoryuk. One passenger received minor injuries and the aircraft was substantially damaged. The NTSB determined the accident's probable cause was due to "total loss of engine power as a result of a fractured first-stage compressor blade due to fatigue cracking. The source of the fatigue crack could not be determined due to secondary damage sustained to the fracture surface."
• On May 4, 2013, a Cessna 207 collided with terrain during a second attempt to land at Newtok. The pilot and three passengers sustained minor injuries and the aircraft was substantially damaged. The probable cause for that accident was the "pilot's continued flight into adverse weather and his failure to maintain clearance from terrain while on approach in flat light conditions."
• On Nov. 22, 2013 a Beechcraft 1900 hit the elevated edge of the runway surface while landing at Badami Airport near Deadhorse. Neither the two pilots nor the single passenger were injured but the aircraft received substantial damage. Weather at the time included heavy blowing snow and broken clouds at 1,000 feet, with a half-mile of visibility.
• Five days later, while operating Era Alaska Flight 1453, a Cessna 208 crashed near St. Marys resulting in the deaths of the pilot and three passengers; six others were seriously injured. The aircraft was operating under visual flight rules, but instrument meteorological conditions prevailed at both St Marys and Mountain Village, the flight's scheduled destination.
• Most recently, two pilots were killed on April 8 while in a Cessna 208 on a training flight near Bethel. Weather appeared to not be a factor in this accident, which resulted in a debris field spread over 180 feet on low level terrain.
Era is currently the subject of two open NTSB investigations, one for an incident involving a de Havilland DHC-8 that occurred in September 2012 and the second for an accident with a Beechcraft 1900 in Homer in October 2013. There were no injuries in either of these mishaps.
Urgent safety recommendations are a rarely-used component of the NTSB mandate. As a non-regulatory agency with no enforcement powers, the NTSB is tasked with investigating all civil aviation accidents in the U.S. as well as major accidents involving other modes of transportation. The board issues safety recommendations as it deems fit as part of probable cause reports and also publishes safety studies on certain topics.
In sharp contrast, urgent safety recommendations are immediate requirements that action be taken by the named agency. In aviation, previous urgent safety recommendations most often reference aircraft specific maintenance concerns such as the September 2012 urgent recommendation to the FAA to issue airworthiness directives for General Electric GEnx-1B and -2B engines. In that case, all aircraft operating with those engines were grounded until the requirements of the directives were met.
"Currently," Johnson explained Thursday, "the only open urgent recommendations are from last December with the Federal Transit Administration. There are no other urgent recommendations with open status."
The NTSB will track the HoTH Inc. recommendations and make note of all efforts by the FAA to pursue the audits and increased oversight.
The HoTH Inc. recommendations will not affect the ongoing open investigations; however, they do reflect information gathered by the NTSB while in pursuit of those investigations. In issuing the safety recommendations now, with probable cause reports still months away, the agency is basically seeking to move forward with safety efforts as quickly as possible and thus reduce the risk of further accidents.
"Additional safety recommendations will likely follow as the probable cause reports for those events are released," Johnson said.
Alaska has a well-known, troubled history of aircraft accidents, and has been the source of two specific NTSB safety reports (in 1980 and 1995) as well as multiple studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and many other academic groups and individuals. But a search of the NTSB's available online database going back to 1996 shows no previous urgent safety recommendations directed at Alaska air taxis or commuters.
Hageland Aviation currently operates dozens of daily flights across Alaska, most heavily in the southwest region.
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.