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Aviation

NTSB offers new detail in 2015 Southeast Alaska plane crash that killed 9

  • Author: Chris Klint
  • Updated: March 22, 2017
  • Published March 21, 2017

The wreckage of a flightseeing plane operated by Promech Air that crashed near Ketchikan on June 25, 2015. (NTSB)

New details were revealed Tuesday about the events leading up to a 2015 plane crash near Ketchikan that killed nine people, eight of them cruise-ship tourists, when their flightseeing plane slammed into a mountainside.

The details included the opinions of colleagues that the pilot was responsible and skilled.

The National Transportation Safety Board released a factual docket Tuesday with dozens of investigative documents tied to the de Havilland Otter crash on June 25, 2015, in Misty Fjords National Monument.

Everyone on board the Promech Air flight was killed: pilot Bryan Krill, 64, and eight passengers from the Holland America Line's MS Westerdam on a shore excursion.

A preliminary NTSB report released shortly after the crash indicated the plane was returning from a flightseeing trip, flying in "marginal" weather conditions under visual flight rules when it crashed into a rock face near Ella Lake, about 20 miles northeast of Ketchikan around 12:15 p.m.

Clint Johnson, NTSB's Alaska chief, said Tuesday the difficulty of even reaching the wrecked plane, located on a steep mountainside, was a hindrance to examining the site.

"This was one of the most challenging sites we've been to in five years," Johnson said.

Johnson characterized the crash as a CFIT, or "controlled flight into terrain."

Promech's Alaska operations were bought out by Ketchikan-based Taquan Air in 2016. A message left Tuesday with Taquan wasn't returned.

The docket contains reports analyzing everything from the aircraft's flight data to images captured on tourists' smartphones and interviews with cruise line and Promech employees.

According to the NTSB records, several Promech pilots and staff considered Krill — a pilot with 1,200 hours of Alaska flight time — a mentor figure with exemplary piloting skills, someone who would often decide not to fly due to weather conditions.

The company's president and CEO at the time, Marcus Sessoms, told NTSB Krill once visited his office to apologize for aborting a tour and landing in Ketchikan due to rain other pilots were flying through.

"(Krill) said 'Boss, I'm sorry. It was raining and I didn't feel comfortable,'" investigators wrote. "Mr. Sessoms told him, 'You never have to say sorry to me for coming back. When you come back I will pat you on the back every time.'"

But some other pilots at Promech had a different view of Krill's piloting habits. One of them told investigators in one incident near Ella Lake, Krill had ignored warnings of downdrafts and his plane's floats struck trees when he flew through the area.

NTSB later learned Krill had flown two tour flights on the day of the incident.

"An entry in the pilot's logbook from that day, June 14, 2015, read, 'Misty Trip, Thought I was dead,'" investigators wrote. "Investigators contacted some of the passengers who had been on those flights. They did not recall anything out of the ordinary about the flights except that they had been turbulent."

Just 11 days later, the day of the crash, NTSB investigators said Krill safely flew two tour groups from Ketchikan harbor to Rudyerd Bay in Misty Fjords and back. A cruise ship shore excursion manager told investigators Taquan Air, which also offered flightseeing packages for cruise passengers, had cancelled all of its tours early that morning due to weather.

On his third trip of the day, Krill was the third of four Promech planes making the flight. The planes took a southern "long route" to Rudyerd Bay, about five minutes slower than the largely overland "short route" through Ella Narrows and over Ella Lake, but considered safer in poor weather by pilots because more of it was over water.

Promech Air pilots took a “short route” and a “long route” between Ketchikan and Rudyerd Bay to the east. A June 25, 2015, crash that killed nine people occurred on the “short route.” (From NTSB)

After a pilot from another company radioed that weather over Ella Lake was "wide open," three of the four Promech pilots, including Krill, opted to return by the "short route."

Two of those planes flew safely through the area. Krill's Otter never made it back.

A passenger photo from the first of four Promech Air planes on the June 25, 2015, flight shows weather in Ella Narrows (circled) shortly before a fatal crash at Ella Lake to the east. (From NTSB)

Sessoms told NTSB Krill was expected back in Ketchikan at 12:40 p.m., because the cruise passengers needed to return for the ship's departure.

When Krill didn't answer his radio, Sessoms took off in another Otter to look for the plane; he was in the air when Promech staff reported hearing a signal for Krill's emergency locator transmitter.

Responders located the crash site at about 3 p.m., and confirmed there were no survivors.

The crashed Otter carried a terrain avoidance warning system, intended to provide visual and audio alerts of oncoming hills or mountains.

Promech pilots told the NTSB the system could be manually disengaged by means of an "inhibit" switch, which was often done in some areas — including near Rudyerd Bay — where it would sound too frequently. The system in Krill's plane was found disengaged at the crash site.

The terrain avoidance warning system in a crashed de Havilland Otter, disabled by the “inhibit” switch, as found after a fatal June 25, 2015, wreck near Ketchikan. (From NTSB)

Additionally, an NTSB examination of Promech's safety training found the company's general operating manual called for flights to be approved "in joint agreement and coordination between the pilot and flight scheduler."

The Promech flight scheduler who handled Krill's flight that day later said the company had no formal training program for her position. Her own training "consisted of studying the company general operations manual and operations specifications, and on-the-job training."

"Asked whether she could recall having any conversations with (Krill) about the weather that morning, she said she only recalled the weather report when he was outbound on the first round of flights," investigators wrote. "That was all she could remember coming from him."

The NTSB noted Promech had been working with the Medallion Foundation, a nonprofit accident-avoidance group formed by the Alaska Air Carriers Association. The organization allows carriers to earn "stars" for elements of their operations, including work to avoid controlled-flight-into-terrain crashes and overall safety.

Promech officials told the NTSB that the company had earned a star for CFIT avoidance. Investigators noted Promech's CFIT avoidance procedures, developed jointly with the foundation, were not a part of the company's general operating manual or its training program, both of which had been approved by the FAA.

Investigators also tried to request details on Medallion's audits of Promech.

"Multiple requests by the NTSB to both Promech and Medallion Foundation for additional information regarding Promech's external and internal Medallion audits were denied," investigators wrote.

Staff at the Medallion Foundation said the organization's executive director, Jerry Rock, was traveling and unavailable for comment Tuesday.

"There should be no conclusions that should be drawn from this information — this is a data dump," Johnson said. A final report on the crash's probable cause will probably be released the last week of April.

Keith Holloway, an NTSB spokesman, said the determination of cause may occur during a formal meeting of the five-member board, which is currently short by one member pending an appointment by President Donald Trump, during a hearing in Washington, D.C. The date for that meeting has not been set.

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