Pilot error led to a fatal September 2011 mid-air crash involving a romantically linked couple flying next to each other over western Alaska, according to a newly released National Transportation Safety Board probable-cause finding.
Pilot Scott Veal, 24, died in the fiery crash of his Cessna 208B Caravan. His girlfriend, 26-year-old Kristen Sprague, walked away from a nose-down forced landing of her Cessna 207 on the tundra north of Nightmute.
Veal was flying alongside Sprague when he suddenly flew just above the much smaller plane and then clipped its wing on the way back down, according to the probable cause report issued Feb. 3.
The board in a Feb. 3 decision determined that Veal failed "to maintain adequate clearance while performing an unexpected and unannounced abrupt maneuver, resulting in a midair collision between the two airplanes."
The crash occurred as Veal, who worked for Grant Aviation Inc., returned to his Bethel base from Toksook Bay with an empty plane. Sprague was flying back to Bethel from Tununak for her employer, Ryan Air. Both were alone in their planes.
The report doesn't name either pilot. They were previously identified by the Alaska State Troopers.
The pilots, described by their employers as having a "close, personal relationship", agreed by radio to meet in flight and fly back together, investigators said.
Sprague told the NTSB that after the two met in the air, Veal flew along the left side of her plane while she cruised at 1,200 feet mean sea level, according to a narrative provided with the probable cause finding. The two continued to talk by radio. Then Veal suddenly maneuvered above and over the top of her airplane.
Sprague told Veal she couldn't see him and "was concerned about where he was," the report said. She saw the wings and cockpit of Veal's plane descending to her right.
Veal's left wing clipped her right wing, the report said.
As she struggled to control her now-damaged plane, Sprague watched as Veal's aircraft lost altitude beneath her, according to a factual report on the crash the NTSB released in November.
Sprague told Veal she thought she was going to crash, she told investigators.
"Me too," he replied.
The Caravan entered a steep, nose-down descent and crashed into the tundra, bursting into flames, the report said.
Sprague, who couldn't maintain level cruise flight and had limited roll control, made a forced landing on rolling tundra about two miles from where Veal crashed and went nose down after the plane's nosewheel collapsed. She wasn't injured.
Pilots who were flying in the area about the same time as the accident reported unlimited visibility with patchy clouds between 1,500 to 2,000 feet, according to the factual report.
Portions of the wreckage were still burning when the NTSB and an Alaska State Trooper arrived at the scene, the report said. "A majority of the main fuselage, cockpit/cabin area, and engine were found embedded in a large crater."
Investigators found parts of Veal's fragmented vertical stabilizer 1,500 feet from the main wreckage. It was marked with red paint that matched the color of the other plane's wing. They also found Sprague's severed right aileron about 1,400 feet from the wreckage.
The severed rudder and vertical stabilizer from Veal's plane landed separately, about 1,000 feet from the wreckage, according to the report.
The probable cause finding was proposed by NTSB's Alaska office before the five-member presidentially appointed board signed off on it.
Mid-air collisions happen in Alaska -- there were several the summer of this accident -- but typically pilots involved don't know each other, said Clint Johnson, NTSB's Alaska region chief.
"This one was different because they're communicating back and forth and just failed to maintain clearance," Johnson said.
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER
Alaska Dispatch Publishing