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NTSB plans rare Alaska hearing as part of Togiak plane crash probe

The wreckage of the Ravn Connect flight that crashed near Togiak. (Alaska State Troopers)

The National Transportation Safety Board will hold a rare hearing in Anchorage next month to examine the fatal crash of a Ravn Connect flight near Togiak last fall.

The investigative hearing will be the first held by the board in Alaska since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and the first held outside Washington, D.C., in nearly 20 years.

The board is expected to address broader issues behind the crash that killed three, including operational control at Hageland Aviation Services Inc.

The hearing is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. Aug. 17 in the Mid-Deck Ballroom of the Captain Cook Hotel.

The board is making the rare trip to Alaska because most of the witnesses live here, officials say. But the unusual location also stems from a spate of fatal plane crashes linked to either flying an airworthy plane into the ground or heading into low-visibility conditions that require help from instruments.

The board's decision reflects a spike in accidents involving charter or commercial operators that often provide essential air service to Alaska villages.

The June 2015 crash of a Promech Air flightseeing floatplane killed nine people near Ketchikan. Another crash a few weeks later near Juneau killed a Wings of Alaska pilot and seriously injured four passengers. Eight people sustained serious injuries in the crash of a Wright Air Service scheduled flight near Anaktuvuk Pass in January 2016.

All told, 40 people have died in 36 aircraft accidents involving "controlled flight into terrain" in Alaska between 2008 and 2016, according to the NTSB.

Hageland Aviation Services aircraft were involved in six accidents since 2013, the board says. Four involved controlled flight into terrain and one involved flight into instrument meteorological conditions.

The NTSB issued two safety recommendations in 2014 asking the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct audits of operators owned by the holding company HoTH, Inc., which included Hageland, one of three airlines that fly as Ravn Alaska.

A Ravn spokesman didn't immediately respond to questions about the hearing Tuesday.

The Togiak crash happened in the Ahklun Mountains 12 miles northwest of Togiak just before noon Oct. 2, 2016. A Ravn Connect Cessna 208B Caravan slammed into a mountainside about 200 feet below the 2,500-foot summit, according to an NTSB preliminary report released last year.

The crash killed pilots Timothy Cline, 48, of Homer, and Drew Welty, 29, of Anchorage, as well as passenger Louie John, a fisherman from Manokotak, who boarded in Quinhagak.

The flight, on an unusual bypass mail route, originated in Bethel. The pilots flew under visual flight rules but poor weather concealed the wreckage from an Alaska State Troopers helicopter until more than four hours after the crash.

An NTSB press release lists several safety issues expected to be discussed at the hearing. Among them:

– Operational control at Hageland, including FAA oversight, organizational structure, and training and guidance for operational control agents;

– Pilot training and guidance related to deteriorating weather conditions including incorporating lessons from previous accidents;

– Safety management, training and oversight resources available to the Alaska aviation community.

Hageland Aviation Services is a participant in the Medallion Foundation's Shield Program. The foundation is a nonprofit partnership between the FAA and industry, created in 2001 by the Alaska Air Carriers Association, with the goal of improving aviation safety in Alaska while reducing insurance rates for commercial air carriers.

Several Medallion members including Ravn, however, have been involved in fatal plane crashes in Alaska.

Generally, NTSB hearings like this one involve a half-dozen witnesses who face questions from the four-member board.

The agency is still building a list of participants for the Anchorage hearing, said Alaska region chief Clint Johnson.

"It's a unique time for the public and especially Alaskans, since we're so dependent on aviation, to be able to peer inside our investigative process," Johnson said.

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