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Aviation

NTSB: Pilot in fatal Unalaska crash had little experience with plane

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: November 18
  • Published November 15

Rescue crews respond to a plane crash at the end of the runway at the Unalaska airport on Oct. 17. (Photo by Erin Enlow)

The pilot involved in a fatal commercial airline crash at Unalaska’s notoriously challenging airport landed with unfavorable, gusty winds and had relatively little experience with the plane.

That’s according to a new investigative report released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The Saab 2000 twin-engine turboprop operated by a Ravn Air Group subsidiary crashed Oct. 17 with 29 passengers and three crew, killing one passenger and injuring four others. The pilot overran the runway on his second landing attempt.

After nearly a month without regular service between Anchorage and Unalaska, Ravn started commercial service again Thursday with the de Havilland Dash 8. Ravn acquired the Saab 2000 fleet last year.

The pilot had 14,000 hours of flight time in the Dash 8, but only 101 hours in the Saab 2000, according to the report. The first officer said he had 147 hours in the Saab.

The crash flight was marketed under the name PenAir, short for longtime Alaska carrier Peninsula Airways, which flew the Saab 2000s into Unalaska. But the flight was operated by Ravn Air Group subsidiary Peninsula Aviation Services Inc., which bought PenAir’s name and assets including the leased planes in a bankruptcy proceeding last year.

Generally, PenAir required pilots flying into Unalaska have at least 300 hours in the Saab 2000. PenAir founder Orin Seybert said after the crash that no aircraft, including the Saab, could have landed safely in the kind of tailwind the pilot experienced.

The flight crew told investigators they conducted a go-around on their first approach to the runway “because they were not stabilized,” the report says.

Winds during the go-around were reported at 8 knots, and then 16 gusting to 30 afterward, investigators found. A weather observer talking to another plane said the winds favored an approach in the other direction — into the wind — on the runway, but that they could shift back to the direction the Ravn pilots used. During the plane’s second approach, winds were reported at 24 knots.

The flight crew — the captain and first officer — told investigators they landed about 1,000 feet down the runway and the pilot initiated reverse thrust and normal wheel-braking, then maximum braking, but couldn’t stop the plane, the report says. “The flight crew reported that they attempted to steer the airplane to the right at the end of the runway to avoid going into the water.”

Damage to the left outboard tire of a Saab 2000 twin-engine turboprop that crashed Oct. 17 at the Unalaska airport. (National Transportation Safety Board photo)

The plane crashed through the airport’s perimeter fence, crossed a road and came to rest on rocks at the Bering Sea shore, according to a preliminary report released Friday by the NTSB along with the investigative report.

The left propeller hit a road sign. A tire blew out; a photo shows a ragged hole in the middle of it.

People in the plane described shrapnel and parts of a propeller slicing through the cabin. One propeller blade was “loosely stuck in the surrounding structure external to the fuselage and another propeller blade was found inside the fuselage,” according to the report. One seat, 4A, was displaced and damaged.

The transportation safety board sent a major investigations team from Washington, D.C., to look into the incident, which marked the first crash-related fatality for a U.S. commercial airline in the last decade.

It could be more than a year before federal investigators determine a probable cause for the Unalaska event.

Damage to the left propeller of a Saab 2000 twin-engine turboprop that crashed Oct. 17 at the Unalaska airport. (National Transportation Safety Board photo)

Killed in the crash was 38-year-old David Allan Oltman, a Washington state resident who residents said came to Unalaska for his work as co-owner of a construction company. Oltman is survived by his parents, wife and two young children, according to an obituary the family provided to KUCB. They described him as the kind of person who connected easily with others and worked various jobs from ski patrol and commercial fishing to technology plant manager and orthopedic implant representative.

Ten people were originally checked for injuries described as ranging from minor to critical. Members of the Cordova High School swim team were on the flight; one swimmer needed metal removed from his leg.

Ravn issued a statement Friday saying the company’s role in the ongoing investigation prohibits them from commenting on the report.

The crash halted all commercial airline service for the Unalaska airport that serves a yearly average of 58,000 ticketed passengers.

Until Thursday, the absence of regular, scheduled service between Anchorage and Unalaska led to stranded travelers and a rush for crowded, pricey charter flights that can be difficult to book. The shutdown came as Bering Sea crab and pollock seasons wound down in Unalaska’s Dutch Harbor, the nation’s largest seafood port by volume.

Alaska Airlines has been flying into Unalaska for decades, a spokesman said.

Before the crash, the Seattle-based airline marketed up to three flights a day between Anchorage and Unalaska, where temperamental Aleutian weather batters a relatively short runway tucked against a mountain.

On Friday, Alaska Airlines announced it was canceling all of its flights to and from Dutch Harbor until the end of May. Anyone who booked a ticket through the airline will automatically be rebooked on Ravn at no extra charge, according to an update. “Currently, there are no plans for Alaska Airlines to market service to and from DUT on Ravn or any other carrier.”

Alaska Airlines can’t market the flights because the capacity agreement with Ravn/PenAir was for the Saab 2000, Alaska spokesman Tim Thompson said this week.

“You can’t substitute planes as the agreement was with PenAir, and not Ravn. We do not have an agreement in this market with Ravn,” Thompson said in an email. “Additionally, our current fleet of jets cannot land at this airport.”

Representatives of Ravn and Alaska Airlines told city officials they plan to hold a community meeting in Unalaska next month.

Ravn, in Friday’s statement, said it doesn’t plan to resume operations with the Saab 2000 “until we are satisfied that our airline can meet the very highest levels of safety, and we have implemented and enhanced safety or operational measures that may be necessary for operations into this airport.”

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that this is the first crash-related fatality for a U.S. commercial airline in the last decade.

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