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Federal investigators probe Mat-Su midair plane crash

As federal investigators sort through the wreckage of a midair plane crash in Mat-Su on Saturday that injured a wildlife trooper and another pilot, attention is turning to the role radio communications may have played in the collision.

On Sunday, Alaska State Troopers identified the pilots involved in Saturday's crash as Levi Duell, 35, of Anchorage and Jeffry Bara, 52, of Eagle River.

Duell and Bara were flying Piper PA-18 Super Cub airplanes when they collided southwest of Wasilla on Saturday afternoon. Both pilots were taken to area hospitals. Medics described Bara's injuries as critical. AST spokeswoman Megan Peters said both men remained hospitalized as of Sunday.

Federal investigators spent Sunday at the crash site, a patch of woods near a private airstrip near Knik-Goose Bay Road and Vine Road, cataloging wreckage, said Clint Johnson of the National Transportation Safety Board.

At least four people witnessed the crash, he said.

Duell, the wildlife trooper, had set out from Wasilla and was planning to make a stop at a cabin before flying to Lake Hood, Johnson said.

Despite the proximity to the airstrip, investigators don't believe either plane was approaching or departing, Johnson said.

The reasons for midair crashes can be "very simple or very complex," Johnson said. "Surprisingly, a lot of midairs take place in clear blue skies like yesterday."

The Matanuska Susitna Borough, where there are many private airstrips and pilots who fly small planes, has a history of deadly midair collisions, said Tom George, the Alaska regional manager for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

The main way pilots of small planes avoid each other is actively looking for other aircraft in the area, or "see and avoid," George said. Being in radio communication with other small planes in the area is also crucial.

On July 30, 2011, an in-flight crash near Trapper Creek killed a family of four from Anchorage, 41-year-old pilot Corey Carlson, his 39-year-old wife Hetty Carlson and their two young daughters.

A report by the NTSB analyzing the incident found the two pilots involved in the deadly crash were on different radio frequencies, and therefore not communicating with each other. The surviving pilot told investigators he didn't see the other plane until moments before impact.

"That caused both industry and government to say 'Hey, let's sit down and look at the situation,' " George said.

Ultimately, the FAA made changes to assigned radio frequencies in an effort to ensure pilots were communicating clearly with each other, George said. The changes went into effect in May, along with a "pretty massive" public information campaign, he said.

Radio communications are just one of many factors the NTSB will be probing to explain what happened, from sun glare to wing location, Johnson said.

"But we're going to be looking at that very closely," he said.

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