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New details emerge in deadly 2015 plane crash near Juneau

  • Author: Chris Klint
  • Updated: April 13, 2017
  • Published April 12, 2017

New details emerged this week in a 2015 plane crash that killed the pilot on a flight from Juneau to Hoonah in Southeast Alaska.

A factual docket on the July 17, 2015, Wings of Alaska crash was posted Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board. The pilot, 45-year-old Fariah Peterson of Birmingham, Alabama, was killed when her Cessna 207A flew into trees about 18 miles west of Juneau while en route to Hoonah. All four passengers were seriously injured, including a 15-year-old boy who provided care for the others and called 911 for help.

A Wings of Alaska Cessna 207A crashed into a spruce tree near Juneau on July 17, 2015. Pilot Fariah Peterson, 45, died in the crash; all four passengers were seriously injured. (From NTSB)

Wings of Alaska shut down last month, according to Haines public radio station KHNS, after several changes in ownership since the crash and a decline in flight frequency.

Clint Johnson, the NTSB's Alaska chief, said the crash shared numerous details with the 2015 Promech Air crash that killed nine people near Ketchikan just weeks earlier. A NTSB factual docket on that crash released last month included examinations of Promech's training procedures as well as its relationship with the nonprofit Medallion Foundation, a safety group formed by the Alaska Air Carriers Association.

"Lots of similarities as far as they were both commercial operators, Southeast Alaska operators — similar terrain conditions, similar weather conditions, both Medallion carriers," Johnson said.

According to the factual report, weather at the time of the crash included scattered clouds at 1,200 feet and broken to overcast cloud ceilings at 2,000 feet. A weather information bulletin mentioned "mountain obscuration due to clouds and precipitation."

A Federal Aviation Administration weather camera image taken at the Juneau airport on July 17, 2015, just before the Wings of Alaska crash that killed pilot Fariah Peterson. (From FAA)
 

The weather on the day of the crash was bad enough to cancel most flights in the morning but had improved enough by 11 a.m. for a flight to depart for Hoonah. Peterson arrived at the Juneau office around noon and took off about an hour later.

"No record was found indicating that the pilot used the company computer to review weather information before the flight nor of her having received or retrieved any weather information before the flight," NTSB investigators wrote. "The flight coordinator did not review weather camera images with the accident pilot before the flight and had no further communication with the pilot about the weather."

Tracking data from the aircraft during its roughly 10-minute flight showed its altitude decrease to 525 feet during its last few minutes in the air, followed by an abrupt climb to 1,220 feet in the final 30 seconds.

The path of a Wings of Alaska Cessna 207 before its fatal crash on July 17, 2015, based on data from the aircraft’s Chelton navigational display units. (From NTSB)

One of the passengers later told NTSB staff that he had flown between Juneau and Hoonah many times and thought Peterson's route was "somewhat unusual."

"Before the impact, he thought that the pilot was trying to climb over the approaching mountain and skirt between a layer of clouds," investigators wrote. "He saw the trees coming at the windshield, and the pilot jerked back on the controls, and then he heard a 'loud boom.' The next thing that he remembered was sitting outside the airplane."

Investigators found the Cessna broken in half against a spruce tree about 1,250 feet above sea level, with the cockpit about 50 feet away from the fuselage.

The Cessna was equipped with a terrain avoidance warning system, intended to provide alerts to obstacles in the flight path. In both the Promech and the Wings crashes, however, a manual "inhibit" switch was used to temporarily disable the system.

Controls for the terrain avoidance warning system on a Wings of Alaska Cessna 207A that crashed on July 17, 2015, manually disabled by an “inhibit” switch. (From NTSB)

Investigators also found that risk assessment forms filed by Wings pilots before flights were handled inconsistently, and Peterson didn't fill out a form before the fatal flight.

Wings had been certified after a voluntary assessment by Medallion as a "shield carrier," allowing it to display a shield insignia from the foundation heralding its safety. In the months before the crash, however, Medallion sought to suspend Wings' shield status.

A May 8, 2015, email from the foundation to Wings said the shield could be suspended voluntarily or involuntarily.

"(The email) further stated, 'With this process of voluntary suspension, there will be no official communication to the FAA, nor will we retain any records within the Medallion files kept on the participating members,'" investigators wrote. "The e-mail stated that the second option would be an involuntary suspension of Shield status by Medallion. In this case, Medallion Foundation would 'have to go through a paperwork trail, including official notification made into Medallion files.' "

Wings chose to voluntarily surrender the shield.

Records Wings sent to Medallion and later gave to the NTSB showed that Peterson and four other pilots had not completed Medallion training on avoiding controlled flights into terrain.

A Jan. 20, 2016, email from Medallion executive director Jerry Rock to the NTSB, rebuffing a request for further detail from the foundation, said that "we don't share information regarding a carrier or their audits."

Reached for comment Tuesday, Rock emphasized the voluntary nature of Medallion's safety program. He said that the foundation provided audit information to its roughly 50 participating air carriers, which holds them to higher Alaska-based standards than the FAA's, but didn't retain records to avoid becoming a source for legal or governmental actions against a carrier.

"It isn't a matter of we don't share anything, it's a matter of we don't keep anything," Rock said. "It's to maintain that relationship in place with the carriers and make sure they're not getting in trouble for anything that they've done."

Rock said he didn't specifically recall the issues that led Medallion to suspend Wings' safety shield, noting that the Medallion auditor who assessed the company's safety program has since retired.

"We give them our report and it's up to the carrier what they do with them after that — we give them about 30 days to take corrective actions," Rock said.

About 45 percent of the foundation's budget — roughly $500,000 a year, according to Rock — comes from FAA grants, with its shield program and other costs covered by air carriers and fees.

Johnson said that the NTSB's determinations of probable cause in both the Wings and the Promech crashes are likely to be released by late April.

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