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Inadequate FAA supervision contributed to 2007 crash

Inadequate supervision of the flight tour industry in Southeast Alaska by the Federal Aviation Administration contributed to a fatal crash in Misty Fjords National Monument that killed five people last summer, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report released this week. Though the probable-cause report primarily faults the pilot for flying into deteriorating weather while relying on sight rather than proper navigation instruments and misjudging the conditions, it says the FAA's lack of supervision over Taquan Air Service contributed to the accident. The safety board has also offered recommendations for improvements.

"The NTSB has been very concerned about the air tour industry for some time," said investigator Clint Johnson. "We are accident investigators, and we look very, very closely at all aspects of the accident. ... In this case, we felt that there were some deficiencies and the recommendations hopefully will bridge that gap."

According to the recommendations, most air tour operators in the Ketchikan area rely on weather reports informally shared over the radio because the nearest weather station is at the town's airport, 40 miles southwest of the crash area.

It also says FAA inspectors typically observe the aircraft at the tour operators' business, inspect the maintenance facilities and conduct annual check rides, but rarely fly with operators during tours because the planes are usually full with paying customers. Nor do the inspectors conduct ground surveillance throughout their area to ensure pilots are flying appropriately for the weather.

Pilots with little experience flying in Southeast are ill-equipped to judge the often rapidly changing weather conditions, according to the report.

The new findings concern a de Havilland Beaver airplane, operated by Taquan Air Service, that crashed into a mountain near Rudyerd Bay about 30 miles northeast of Ketchikan on July 24, 2007. The pilot, Joseph H. Campbell, 56, and two retired married couples died in the crash.

Campbell had 25 years of commercial aviation experience when he was hired by Taquan to run flights during the tourist season, company officials said at the time. Only seven hours, however, had taken place in Alaska at the time he was hired, the report says.

Taquan officials declined to comment Thursday, saying the only person authorized to talk to reporters was not available.

Campbell's floatplane was the second in a string of three flying over Misty Fjords National Monument, according to the report. The pilot of the first aircraft reported low clouds with rain and fog in the area, prompting him to descend to 700 feet before finishing the tour as scheduled despite the rapidly changing weather conditions, the report says.

Five minutes behind the downed aircraft, the pilot of the third aircraft reported encountering a "wall of weather" that blocked his flight route as he approached the crash area, the report says. He took an alternate route and ended the tour.

Campbell's plane, however, proceeded, and its wreckage was ultimately discovered fragmented on a steep, tree-covered mountainside at 2,500 feet. A passenger's camera, recovered after the plane went down, depicted worsening weather conditions with each snapshot, and the safety board was unable to find any mechanical problems with the aircraft during an inspection of the wreckage.

Based upon the findings of the crash and four others in the past 10 years, the safety board recommended the FAA:

* Install weather cameras at points along heavily travelled air tour routes.

* Observe flight tours aboard the planes and on the ground once a month during tour season.

* Develop a system to help pilots assess weather conditions and make in-flight decisions.

The FAA would not comment specifically on the report or recommendations but said it was reviewing them.

"We have 90 days to respond to the NTSB's recommendations and we will get back to them with an answer," FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said in an e-mail response. "In general however, we agree with the majority of their recommendations and will end up implementing them."

Existing plans call for 139 weather cameras to be installed in Alaska by 2014, including five along the tour flight routes in Southeast, the report says. Johnson said before the recommendations were released the FAA had already pushed up the scheduled date for installing one camera in the crash area to next year.

"That's a positive. That's a great response," Johnson said. "There's a tremendous amount of air traffic that goes through that small area and the addition of weather cameras is a wonderful idea."

Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.