The National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday released a probable cause report finding pilot error in the triple-fatality plane crash during last year's Iditarod. The agency determined the accident was caused by pilot Ronald "Ted" Smith's failure to maintain adequate airspeed while maneuvering inside a box canyon, which caused an aerodynamic stall. A contributing factor was the pilot's visual disorientation in flat light conditions.
On March 4, 2013, at about 11 a.m., a Cessna 182B piloted by Smith and carrying passengers Carolyn Sorvoja and her 10-year old daughter Rosemarie crashed into mountainous, snow-covered terrain near Rainy Pass. According to the report, the aircraft was operating under visual flight rules and visual meteorological conditions prevailed.
Smith held a commercial pilot certificate with airplane multi-engine land, single-engine land, rotorcraft and instrument ratings. He was also a certified flight instructor and, based on information from his employer, had 1,680 total flight hours.
Through interviews, NTSB investigators determined that Smith intended to fly a family of four in two separate trips from Merrill Field to Takotna, via Rainy Pass, to volunteer with the Iditarod. A family friend of Smith's said the first flight was scheduled to depart at 9 a.m. but actually took off from Merrill Field at 10:06. "The pilot was feeling rushed due to the late start," according to the friend, "and was hoping to complete the round trip without stopping in McGrath for fuel."
When the plane failed to arrive, a search was conducted along the planned route of flight, and the Alaska Air National Guard located the wreckage in a box canyon near Rainy Pass the next morning. The entrance to the canyon intersected with the pass and was approximately 1 mile from the summit. A friend of Smith's, who intended to fly through the pass that morning at the same time, told investigators he turned around due to weather after encountering flat light and windy conditions. He stated that he "...could not discern where the ground was, except for the occasional dog musher on the ground in Rainy Pass." The pilot also informed investigators that Smith had become disoriented in the pass in the previous year while piloting a helicopter and taken a wrong route.
The closest weather reporting facility to the crash site was Puntilla Lake, about 18 miles northwest. At 9:02 a.m., a weather observation from Puntilla Lake reported calm winds, 25 miles visibility and a ceiling of 5,000 feet overcast. In another interview with the NTSB, a pilot who flew through the pass the morning of the accident reported ceilings of 4,400 feet, severe turbulence and, again, flat light conditions.
An examination of the wreckage revealed that the Cessna impacted the canyon in a near vertical attitude at about the 4,386 foot level. The throttle and mixture controls were in full-forward position, both flaps were in the "up" position and the propeller blades "exhibited extensive leading edge gouges, substantial torsional 'S' twisting and chordwise scratching."
Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com.