NTSB: Willow plane crash occurred during pilot’s first night training

PALMER — A plane crash Saturday night in Willow occurred during the pilot's first night training since she got her certification a month earlier.

That's according to a preliminary report released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The crash a little over a mile north-northeast of the Willow Airport seriously injured the pilot and a flight instructor and substantially damaged the plane, a Cessna U206.

The pilot, 20-year-old Robin C. Spaulding, was on her first night training flight since she got her private pilot certification Aug. 9, according to the report filed by NTSB investigator Noreen Price. With her was instructor John P. Cabaud, 29, who had provided most of Spaulding's initial pilot training.

Both are from Talkeetna.

Night flying is part of the pilot certification process, but because of Alaska's long summer days, pilots here fall under an exception that gives them 12 months after they get certified to finish night training.

Cabaud is a flight instructor at Alaska Floats & Skis in Talkeetna. But he was not working the night of the crash, a company representative said Thursday. Spaulding was a private client.

Spaulding told Price during a phone interview after the crash that the two pilots planned stop-and-go landings at multiple airports, according to the report. They left Talkeetna around 8:30 p.m. Sunset at Willow was 8:45 p.m. and moonset about 10 minutes later.

Spaulding said they completed a full-stop landing at Willow and then took off for another try, Price wrote. After takeoff, as she climbed to 1,000 feet, Spaulding said she started a right, crosswind turn "into a dark area with no visible horizon."

She told Price that the last thing she remembered was hearing Cabaud say, "What's wrong with your attitude indicator?" before the plane dropped and crashed, Price stated.

Cabaud, in a separate interview, told another investigator that he "felt something was wrong" — the horizon wasn't visible, the wind stream sounded unusual — when Spaulding started her right turn over dark terrain, the report says. He said he took the controls but the plane crashed before he could recover.

The injured pilots scrambled out of the wreckage through a tear in the fuselage and managed to find Spaulding's cellphone to call a relative, who called Alaska State Troopers, according to the report.

But troopers and emergency responders couldn't access the site of the crash on foot, authorities said.

The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center picked up a signal from the plane's 406 MHz emergency locator transmitter just before midnight, the NTSB says. An Air National Guard Pave Hawk helicopter picked the pilots up at about 1:50 a.m.

Spaulding and Cabaud couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

They're lucky to be alive, authorities said.

The NTSB is encouraging pilots to replace older models with the 406 transmitter.

"We couldn't have had a better outcome," said Clint Johnson, the NTSB's Alaska chief. "Having that 406 ELT is worth its weight in gold."

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.