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Aviation

Emergency beacon on plane in fatal crash near Whittier had wrong registration

Brett Andrews, 31, of Anchorage, died May 12 when the plane he was piloting crashed into a mountainside near Whittier. (Photo courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

The emergency beacon on the Piper Cherokee that crashed near Whittier earlier this month, killing the student pilot at the controls, carried the wrong information, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The beacon was registered to a foreign government agency and marked with a country code from Ireland, according to a preliminary report the agency released late last week. That apparently outdated information may have complicated search efforts in the immediate aftermath of the May 12 crash.

There is no indication in the report that the beacon's registration issues played any role in the crash itself.

It's also not clear that the registration on the plane changed the course of this particular rescue, given poor weather conditions at the time.

Anchorage resident Brett Andrews, 31, was flying the single-engine plane from Merrill Field to Valdez, where he planned to keep it for the summer, relatives told authorities.

The Piper PA-28-180 crashed on a steep, snowy mountain at 2,000 feet about a mile south-southeast of Whittier, according the NTSB report by lead investigator Noreen Price.

Andrews left Merrill just before 9 a.m. that Saturday and flew south over Turnagain Arm, where he radioed a location at Bird Creek point at 9:16 a.m., Price wrote. No further radio traffic was received.

The Rescue Coordination Center picked up the signal from an emergency locator transmitter at 9:40 a.m., the report states. But the transmitter was not registered to the airplane owner and there were no overdue airplane reports in Alaska.

Instead, the registered owner on file for the transmitter was an overseas government agency, Price said Thursday. The unit was marked with a country code from Ireland.

The Artex 406-megahertz ELT the plane carried is designed to instantly transmit a signal to search and rescue satellites, alerting rescuers within minutes of a crash location and to whom the transmitter is registered, the report says.

Once the rescue center picks up an emergency signal, staffers start trying to contact the registered owner to confirm an accident has occurred. They make other contacts, too, including the Federal Aviation Administration or other pilots in the area.

Federal law requires the transmitters be registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when a plane or transmitter changes ownership and every two years after that.

"It's very, very important to make sure your ELTs are registered properly or there may be a delay in the search-and-rescue effort," Price said.

A representative of the Alaska Air National Guard, which oversees the Rescue Coordination Center, didn't immediately return requests for comment Thursday about what, if any, role the mix up played in the search.

The center coordinated a ground and air search with the Civil Air Patrol throughout the day after the emergency signal came in, but weather at the accident site didn't allow them to get to the location in the mountains.

A concerned family member reported an overdue airplane to the Kenai Flight Service Station that afternoon, according to the report. The FAA issued an alert at 3:15 p.m. and the rescue center requested the launch of an Alaska Air National Guard HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter and a U.S. Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter from Cordova.

The Jayhawk crew found the wreckage at about 9 p.m. that day, the report says. A pararescueman lowered from the Pave Hawk confirmed that Andrews did not survive the crash. Alaska State Troopers, with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group and a troopers helicopter, recovered his body the next day.

The cause of the crash has yet to be determined.

The terrain between Anchorage and Valdez includes remote inland fjords, coastal waterways and steep mountains, which require flying through numerous high passes, the report says. FAA aviation weather cameras that morning at Whittier and Portage Glacier showed low cloud ceilings "with obscured mountain tops" near the crash site.

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