A Fairbanks pilot involved in a Brooks Range flightseeing crash that killed one passenger and seriously injured two others was convicted this week of lying to federal investigators.
Forest Kirst, 62 now, was also seriously injured in the August 2014 crash of the Ryan Navion four-seater.
Three Canadian tourists chartered the Kirst Aviation flight for a day trip before starting an Alaska cruise, federal prosecutors say. Kirst left Bettles and began flying “too low. ... After circling over a moose in a pond, the airplane lacked the power and altitude to clear Atigun Pass.”
The plane crashed into a mountainside below the Dalton Highway and above a trans-Alaska pipeline maintenance road.
Thirty-five days after the crash, 66-year-old passenger Darrell Spencer died of a “massive pulmonary embolism” related to the fractured skull and other injuries he suffered, according to a civil lawsuit filed in connection with the crash. Passengers Daphne McCann, 57 at the time, and Marcene Nason, 65, suffered back and head injuries, as did Kirst. The passengers were from the province of New Brunswick.
An Anchorage jury on Monday convicted Kirst of obstructing the crash investigation by lying to the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Anchorage. He was found not guilty on a charge of piloting an aircraft without a valid airman’s certificate.
Kirst, contacted by phone Wednesday, said he planned to appeal.
“Of course we’re appealing,” he said. “I can’t help that government employees lied on the witness stand.”
Asked which employees lied, he referred questions to his attorney, who couldn’t immediately be reached.
Kirst blamed the crash on an improperly assembled propeller that came apart in flight, and says that information was supported by witnesses during legal proceedings. But federal investigators found no evidence to support that and said instead that the propeller came off during the crash.
Kirst was flying too low and, loaded near the plane’s maximum gross weight capacity, couldn’t climb fast enough to escape the terrain rising around him, according to a 2017 National Transportation Safety Board final report.
Prosecutors in the federal obstruction case say he told different stories of what happened following the crash.
Kirst initially told first responders he hit a severe downdraft approaching the high mountain pass, causing the plane to lose altitude, according to the NTSB report.
Two weeks after the accident, Kirst told investigators the plane was climbing when passenger Darrell Spencer -- who he said wasn’t wearing a shoulder harness -- slumped into the yoke and blocked the throttle and landing gear controls. Kirst also said a motion sickness drug made all the passengers unresponsive.
“However, none of the three passengers recalled this, and the front seat passenger was found with his seatbelt and shoulder harness on when first responders arrived on scene,” the report states.
About two months after his first NTSB interview, Kirst stated the propeller separated in flight, according to the report.
During a later FAA hearing, Kirst testified his plane dropped about 1,500 feet before the crash, according to a federal indictment filed in 2017.
The FAA revoked Kirst’s pilot certificate, including his commercial approval, in March 2015, according to the federal indictment filed against him in 2017. The agency then issued two more emergency orders revoking the certificate.
He flew in December 2015 despite the revocation, which he appealed, according to the indictment. It was during an administrative hearing on that appeal that Kirst provided the conflicting story about the crash.
NTSB investigators in their 2017 report also faulted the FAA for allowing Kirst to conduct commercial flights given his “history of accidents, incidents, reexaminations, and checkride failures” from 2007 to 2012.
He is not flying now, Kirst said Wednesday, because he’s still trying to appeal the revocation, which he blamed on the judge involved. “I could be flying now but I’m going with the appeal process. Why should I have to spend my money to get another license when it was revoked improperly?”
Kirst and his wife, along with Spencer’s widow and the two surviving passengers and their husbands, in 2016 filed a civil personal injury and wrongful death lawsuit against the company that sold Kirst the propeller that he installed in 2011.
The complaint includes an account of what happened before the crash: Kirst was at 5,600 feet when he experienced a “sudden uncontrollable and uncommanded pitch down attitude" and the plane began dropping 1,000 feet a minute.
The plaintiffs sought more than $1 million in damages. U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess dismissed the lawsuit last year, and instead of damages ordered the plaintiffs to pay the propeller company more than $98,000 in attorneys’ fees.
The Kirsts appealed. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision in August and denied the couple’s request for a rehearing.
Kirst’s sentencing on the federal conviction was scheduled for February.