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Aviation

NTSB hearing will investigate Alaska crashes that shouldn’t be happening

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published August 15, 2017

The National Transportation Safety Board will hold a rare investigative hearing in Anchorage on Thursday to learn more about the fatal crash of a Ravn Connect plane last fall and its relation to what one board member called 35 other "eminently avoidable" airplane accidents that have killed dozens in Alaska.

The 36 crashes over the last eight years, claiming 40 lives, involved "controlled flight into terrain," said Earl Weener, the board member who will chair the field hearing. Weener spoke with reporters Tuesday.

"Controlled flight into terrain means flying a perfectly good airplane into ground or water but under control. We want to put a focus on it so people can avoid these accidents," Weener said.

National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener, left, will chair an unusual public field hearing in Anchorage on Thursday. The hearing will focus on the deadly crash of a Ravn Connect plane last fall. It will also look into the broader issue of airworthy planes unexpectedly crashing into Alaska terrain under controlled conditions. At right is Clint Johnson, chief of NTSB’s regional Alaska office. (Alex Demarban / Alaska Dispatch News)

They shouldn't be happening, he said.

Such crashes might occur when a pilot flies into low-visibility conditions that obscure terrain and require help from instruments.

Weener, one of the agency's four current board members, will be the only board member participating in the hearing. The hearing will help the board gather facts, leading to a report determining probable cause and making recommendations that will be presented to the board for consideration. The process might take a year, said Weener.

The independent agency does not have enforcement authority, though the Federal Aviation Administration does. The NTSB frequently comments on FAA activity.

"We're not placing blame on anybody," said Clint Johnson, head of NTSB's regional Alaska office. "This is a fact-finding mission. There are going to be lessons learned at the end of this hearing, I can almost guarantee that."

The hearing will be the board's first outside of Washington, D.C., in nearly 20 years. It will be the first in Alaska since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The one-day, eight-hour hearing will be open to the public and livestreamed online.

A Ravn Connect Cessna 208B crashed near Togiak on Oct. 2, 2016, leaving no survivors. (Alaska State Troopers)

But officials providing testimony will also focus on broader aviation safety issues in Alaska. The hearing will take testimony from 16 people.

Officials with Hageland Aviation, flying as Ravn Alaska, will appear before the board on three panels divided by subject area.

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

Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration will also provide testimony on each of the three panels.

The first panel, looking at ways to avoid controlled-flight crashes — including through on-board technology and weather sources — will also have a representative from Honeywell. The New-Jersey-based company makes terrain-warning systems.

The second panel will address operational procedures at Hageland.

A third panel will look at safety and oversight in Alaska aviation, including the FAA's oversight of the Medallion Foundation's Shield Program, an aviation safety program. The Medallion Foundation, a recipient of federal funds, was formed in 2001 to reduce aircraft accidents in Alaska.

The hearing, starting at 8 am. Thursday, will be held in the Mid-Deck Ballroom of the Captain Cook Hotel. It will be available online at ustream.tv/channel/Rmfw7ZW73v4.

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