Aviation

Newly released documents describe terrifying descent, safety concerns after deadly 2019 midair collision near Ketchikan

It was a terrible plane crash in a year of terrible crashes: the May 2019 midair collision near Ketchikan between two flightseeing planes carrying cruise ship passengers on what was supposed to be a trip of a lifetime over Misty Fjords National Monument.

Six people died — Mountain Air Service pilot Randy Sullivan and his four passengers, as well as a passenger in a Taquan Air plane — and 10 suffered injuries when the aircraft converged at 3,350 feet in clear skies.

This month, the National Transportation Safety Board released hundreds of pages of documents filed as part of a major investigation into the accident by teams in Alaska and Washington, D.C.

The agency’s accident investigation docket includes a harrowing description of the moments before and after the collision from the surviving passengers and Lou Beck, the 60-year-old pilot flying the Taquan plane.

It also includes references to safety concerns around Misty Fjords — including those expressed before the crash by Sullivan, a 46-year-old local who owned Mountain Air.

The agency opened the docket so the public can examine the contents thus far, said Clint Johnson, NTSB’s Alaska chief. The investigation is expected to conclude next year.

The newly released documents come as the NTSB begins an investigation into a July 31 midair collision over Soldotna that killed seven people, including state legislator Gary Knopp. A preliminary report on that incident is due out next week.

A flash to the left

The Ketchikan-based floatplanes carried passengers from the same cruise megaship, the Royal Princess, that docked that morning on its inaugural Alaska run from Vancouver to Whittier. The planes were returning from flightseeing tours of Misty Fjords.

Mountain Air’s single-engine de Havilland DHC-2 MK 1 Beaver and Taquan’s larger turboprop de Havilland DHC-3 Otter collided just after noon May 13 over the west side of George Inlet.

The Mountain Air plane had leveled off and the Taquan plane was descending, both headed for the Mahoney Lakes area, according to numerous reports.

The Otter was headed toward a waterfall when Beck glimpsed a red-and-white object on his left side — the other plane, just before impact.

[Previous coverage: NTSB says Pilot saw ‘flash from left’ before midair collision near Ketchikan that killed 6]

A passenger on the Otter’s left side told investigators he saw the Beaver before that.

At first, the 47-year-old Pennsylvania man thought the two planes were flying in formation and that the pilots each knew the other was there. But as the distance closed, he realized they were going to collide.

The Otter was approaching the Beaver toward its rear right, parallel from behind, the man told investigators. The Beaver appeared to be climbing. The man didn’t think the other pilot could see the Otter.

His wife told investigators she looked over and saw him waving his arms, screaming.

“I remember somebody saying ‘Pull up.’ I don’t know if that was me or some other passengers,” the man told investigators. “After a second or two of seeing the rapidly closing distance, I realized that it — he wasn’t going to break off and we were going to impact, and I said ‘s---,’ because I knew we were going to be in trouble.”

‘Brace brace brace’

The Otter lurched to the right in a hard roll.

Beck, the pilot, estimated it took 5 seconds to hit the water.

His propeller apparently hit the Beaver’s right wing, leaving deep cuts later documented by investigators. The tail of the Beaver hit the left side of the Otter, popping open a door.

A passenger sitting near the door suddenly had one leg sucked outside the plane, witnesses told investigators, who credited nearby passengers who held him as well as his seatbelt with keeping him in place.

Another passenger said she looked up and saw the pilot, bloodied but still flying the plane as the wind whipped around his head.

Beck told investigators the force of the impact knocked out part of the windscreen. He pushed out a broken slab and watched as the wind ripped it away. He heard the noise of the wind and chatter of the plane amid blurry vision, maybe from airborne fuel, as he tried to maintain control.

The Otter’s propeller was stopped, Beck noticed. A blade was broken.

“George Inlet was coming at me very fast,” he told investigators. It felt to him like the plane was going over 100 mph when it hit the water.

At least three people could be heard saying “Brace brace brace” on a camera still recording audio before the plane hit the water.

Beck said he tried to flatten the Otter’s landing path and to his surprise the plane “flared” just before it hit. Then it stopped violently. Water flooded in through the open front.

Rescue

Beck said he found himself totally immersed, looking up through green water. He undid his seatbelt and swam up out of a break in the plane through a tangle of cords, wires and debris. Surfacing, he started helping passengers get out of the plane that was quickly filling with water. He could hear them screaming in pain.

Passengers, all of them injured, scrambled to open their seatbelts as the water rose. Those who could helped others struggling to release theirs. Dressed for Alaska weather, their heavy clothes and shoes weighed them down in the frigid water.

A nearby mariner saw the plane and notified the Coast Guard before launching a small skiff to start bringing survivors to shore. An Allen Marine catamaran helped ferry ambulatory passengers to a nearby lodge, where they were met by local responders and ambulances. Beck stayed behind, not leaving the passengers until all of them were loaded for transport. Temsco helicopters helped retrieve the pilot and a few remaining passengers.

One 72-year-old passenger from Missouri later told investigators there wasn’t time to think, from the moment of impact to the immersion in water because “everything just happened so quickly. It was just a matter of seconds.”

Six lost

The Otter came down about 10 miles northeast of Ketchikan near the eastern shore of George Inlet. The person who died in the Otter appeared to lose consciousness right after impact and couldn’t be removed from the wreckage.

The Beaver broke up in flight, scattering debris across a 3,000-foot field. There were no survivors.

Alaska State Troopers identified the passengers who died in the Beaver as 46-year-old Louis Botha of San Diego; 56-year-old Simon Bodie from Tempe, New South Wales, Australia; 39-year-old Ryan Wilk from Utah; and 37-year-old Elsa Wilk of Richmond, British Columbia. The passenger who died in the Otter was 62-year-old Cassandra Webb from St. Louis.

The other passengers in the Otter suffered numerous serious sharp or blunt-force injuries, one report said. Most suffered one or more fractures of the spine, arms or ribs. Beck suffered a concussion as well as cuts and bruises.

‘So many planes'

Mountain Air Service closed after the accident.

Sullivan’s sister, who sometimes worked with him, told investigators he “expressed concern about the potential for ‘this exact scenario involving that exact company’” and said he’d mentioned Taquan pilots didn’t seem to know the area as well as local pilots did.

Sullivan’s widow, Julie, described her husband’s remarks about crowded skies and inexperienced pilots in an interview transcript released as part of the docket.

“Asked whether the pilot ever expressed any safety concerns about flying in the Misty Fjords tour area, she said yes, he had,” the transcript said. “There were so many planes that flew back there between May and September and a lot of them were seasonal pilots that were not from Alaska and did not know the area as well as the pilots that were from there. The bigger companies were the ones that usually had the less experienced pilots.”

Contacted for comment about the docket, a Taquan representative said the company was referring questions to the National Transportation Safety Board due to the ongoing investigation.

Sullivan had 11,000 hours of total flying time. Before starting his own company in 2012, he flew for numerous Southeast Alaska air services, including Taquan, as well as Seattle Seaplanes. He began flying for Promech in 2002 and held certifications as a commercial pilot and flight instructor.

Beck’s total flying time was 25,000 hours. He held certifications as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, airline transport pilot, and flight engineer. He was a U.S. Air Force pilot before working for more than 20 years as a Delta Air Lines pilot and retiring in his late 50s. Last May marked his second season flying for Taquan, though he also lived and flew privately in the Anchorage area.

Ketchikan Commercial Operators, a group of local air services including Taquan, decided after the collision that all participating tour operators would eliminate fixed-wing flights in the Ketchikan Lakes area.

Taquan added numerous safety measures in an update for its pilots, according to a letter of agreement filed last June. The company required anti-collision lights; a commitment to stay over water as much as possible on “standardized tour routes”; a specific pattern for George Inlet tours; and a policy where all pilots announce their positions at all reporting points listed in the agreement; and the use of ADS-B systems at all times. The systems can warn of possible midair collisions.

The Ketchikan accident was one of 11 fatal Alaska crashes last year, including another involving Taquan, about a week after the midair collision, that killed pilot Ron Rash, 51, and passenger Sarah Luna, 31, an epidemiologist on a work trip to Metlakatla. Other crashes included a RavnAir Group flight that overshot the Unalaska runway in October, killing a Washington state man.

No alerts

Generally, it’s a pilot’s responsibility to “see and avoid” other planes.

Federal investigators analyzing the Ketchikan midair collision found that, outside of one 5-second period a few minutes before the crash and another 24-second period just before it, “each airplane would have been obscured from the view of the pilot of the other,” according to an NTSB report on cockpit visibility. They also found that Sullivan, in the Beaver, probably couldn’t see the other plane for the entire three minutes before the crash.

Before the crash, Beck said, he checked a visual display at about 4,000 feet over Carroll Inlet and saw planes but “to the left of where I was going,” according to the visibility report.

Beck didn’t recall hearing any radio traffic. He also wasn’t sure whether he radioed his position on that particular trip or another the same day, but was sure he’d broadcast it at some point.

The plane’s ADS-B system wasn’t capable of receiving audio or visual alerts indicating other aircraft in close proximity, the report says. The Otter also wasn’t transmitting data that would have given Sullivan, in the Beaver, information about the other plane’s altitude.

NTSB investigators appear to be focusing on the ADS-B systems carried by both planes, among other aspects of the collision.

But other aviators interviewed by federal investigators after the crash said they felt at least some Ketchikan pilots relied too much on the systems, or as one put it in a witness statement, “spend too much time looking at the display when they should always be looking out the window.”

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