Report: Pilot error caused fatal Atigun Pass plane crash -- but FAA shares blame

Federal investigators say a pilot who gave conflicting reasons for slamming into mountainous Alaska terrain in 2014 was likely to blame for the crash that led to the death of one passenger and serious injuries for others.

But in determining probable cause, the National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday also blamed another agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, for contributing to the accident. The FAA had issued an operator's certificate to pilot Forest Kirst despite a history of accidents and mistakes.

Kirst crashed near Atigun Pass on Aug. 24, 2014. The owner of Kirst Aviation in Fairbanks, he flew the four-seat Ryan Navion A so low during a flightseeing tour that he couldn't climb fast enough to reach the Brooks Range crossing, the report said.

The plane was severely damaged. Kirst, 57 at the time, suffered serious injuries, along with three passengers from New Brunswick, Canada, according to news reports of the crash.

Darrel Spencer, 66, rode in the front seat beside the pilot. Spencer later died from his injuries.

"This low altitude flying resulted in the airplane reaching the area of the pass, being boxed in by the surrounding terrain, and not having enough energy or performance to climb up and cross over the pass as the terrain at that point was rising faster than the airplane could climb," the safety board's final report said on Wednesday.

"Examination of weight and balance information indicated that the pilot had taken off with the airplane loaded over maximum gross weight and that the airplane was near its maximum gross weight when the accident occurred," the report said. "The pilot's decision to operate the airplane near its maximum gross weight likely contributed to the accident because it reduced the margin of power available for climb."


Kirst provided different reasons for the accident that did not hold up against evidence, according to the report.

Investigators found no indication that a serious downdraft hit the plane, causing the plane to lose altitude, as Kirst initially reported.

Also, the front-seat passenger did not slump onto the flight controls after taking a motion sickness drug, as Kirst said two weeks after the accident, according to the report.

Evidence showed a propeller blade did not tear off in flight — an assertion made by Kirst two months after the crash, the report said. Instead, it ripped away during impact, as indicated by information such as the large amount of grease that remained in the propeller hub. The grease was not thrown out in a centrifugal pattern, as it would have been if the blade had torn away during flight.

The safety board found no evidence of "pre-impact mechanical malfunctions or anomalies" that would have hindered the plane's normal operation.

The report said a review of FAA records showed that from 2007 to 2012, the pilot and certified flight instructor had a "history of accidents, incidents, reexaminations, and checkride failures."

Despite that history and "concerns voiced by numerous FAA personnel," the agency issued Kirst a certificate to conduct commercial air transport in 2012, the report said.

"According to staff in FAA's Office of Chief Counsel, applicants for an air carrier certificate are not denied solely on the basis of a single violation or a previous accident," the NTSB report said. "The agency has a legal obligation to utilize its authority for certification that is based on substantiated facts, not individual inspector opinions and innuendo."

Kirst did not return a phone call on Saturday seeking comment. Alaska business licenses for Kirst Aviation expired in 2015, state records show.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.