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Wrong fuel added before crash of Alaska forestry plane that injured pilot and 3 firefighters, NTSB says

The pilot of an Alaska Division of Forestry Aero Commander 500 Shrike that crashed into water near Aniak on Thursday afternoon, May 28, 2020, was hospitalized with serious injuries, officials said. Three firefighter passengers also were injured. (Alaska Department of Public Safety)

A state plane transporting wildland firefighters crashed near Aniak in late May after the wrong type of fuel was put into the tanks just before takeoff, according to a federal report.

Pilot Mark Jordan, of Eagle River, and three Alaska Division of Forestry firefighters were hurt when the Aero Commander 500 Shrike crashed into a large pond in a gravel pit near the Western Alaska town on May 28.

Two of them suffered more serious injuries: Jordan, who is making progress after several surgeries, and a Hooper Bay firefighter who’s been released from the hospital but is still doing physical therapy in Anchorage, Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry said this week. Another firefighter from Aniak is recovering from hand surgery.

Jordan, an experienced pilot, was hired in the spring. It’s not clear when he can return to duty, Mowry said. Forestry is looking into replacing the aircraft.

The plane was transporting the firefighters to McGrath, where they were to be sent on wildfire responses from the Kenai/Kodiak area forestry station in Soldotna.

Jordan said he had the Aniak fuel vendor’s ground-service personnel refuel the plane, according to the preliminary report filed by National Transportation Safety Board investigator Brice Banning. The pilot signed the fuel receipt and returned to the cockpit to finish paperwork before departure.

Jordan loaded his passengers, started the airplane’s engines and taxied to the runway for departure, the report says.

The fuel vendor’s truck driver wasn’t familiar with the plane and had to ask the pilot for information, according to the NTSB report. Before he started refueling, the report states, the driver asked Jordan, “Do you want Prist with your Jet?” Prist is an additive used to prevent fuel from gelling in turbine engines that tend to fly at higher altitudes. “Jet” is Jet A fuel.

The Aero Commander 500 has engines powered by pistons, not turbines. The plane uses aviation gasoline, not Jet A fuel. A placard near the fuel port on top of the wing stated in part, “AVIATION GASOLINE ONLY,” the report says.

The driver returned to his truck when the refueling was done, wrote “Jet A” in the meter readings section of the prepared receipt, and gave it to Jordan to sign, the report says. The pilot signed the receipt and got a copy. The fueler told Banning he later added “no Prist” to his copy of the receipt.

“The pilot said that shortly after takeoff, and during initial climb, he initially noticed what he thought was mechanical turbulence followed by a reduction in climb performance, and the airplane’s engines began to lose power,” Banning wrote. “Unable to maintain altitude and while descending about 400 (feet) per minute, he selected an area of shallow water covered terrain as an off-airport landing site. The last thing the pilot remembered of the accident flight was guiding the airplane to the off-airport landing site.”

The plane crashed into frigid water 4 or 5 feet deep. Five Aniak teenagers spotted the bright yellow wreckage and two firefighters climbing out — Craig Friday of Hooper Bay and Kelly Kehlenbach of Aniak — and started a rescue after notifying authorities. They stayed with Jordan and Albert Simon, of Hooper Bay, who were too injured to get out of the water.

Forestry officials are reviewing the crash to determine if “there is something that we need to do to be safer,” Mowry said. State officials are waiting for the National Transportation Safety Board to complete a final report that could include probable cause of the crash before making any decisions. That’s at least four to six months off.

“The preliminary report is just what it says — there’s no fault or anything like that,” he said. “It’s just a statement of what happened.”

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