A new federal report on a 2019 air ambulance crash in Southeast Alaska that killed all three crew members adds new mystery to an already challenging investigation into what caused the plane to go down just before landing in Kake.
Both front flight crew seats and a passenger seat recovered from the ocean floor were empty, their restraints unbuckled, according to a National Transportation Safety Board factual report released Wednesday. The base of a second passenger seat was recovered but without the seat back or restraint. One rear seat wasn’t found.
The twin-engine, turbine-powered Beechcraft B200 took off from Anchorage the afternoon of Jan. 29 for the roughly 600-mile trip to pick up a patient in the Tlingit village. It never arrived.
Lost in the crash were pilot Patrick Coyle, 63; flight paramedic Margaret Langston, 43; and flight nurse Stacie Morse, 30. Coyle was a seasoned pilot with thousands of hours of flying time. Langston was recently married. Morse was 27 weeks pregnant.
Their bodies have not been found.
Coyle would have been sitting in the front left seat, according to Clint Johnson, Alaska chief for the NTSB. It’s possible one of the other crew members was in the seat next to him, but investigators don’t know.
It’s not clear what led the people in those seats to take the unusual action of unbuckling the safety devices about nine minutes before the plane was due to land.
The plane plummeted just over 2,500 feet in 14 seconds, according to accident tracking data included in the report. Its last radar data point was at about 1,300 feet altitude. The aircraft was traveling at 200 mph.
“This was a very challenging investigation for us, not only logistically but every time we found something it led to a dead end,” Johnson said, adding the lack of a cockpit voice recording complicated efforts to explain what might have happened. “We just don’t know. We can’t speculate. All we can do is report the facts.”
The report released this week was not intended to find a probable cause of the crash. Any such finding won’t be made for months.
A spokesman for Guardian emailed a statement Wednesday evening saying the company “acknowledges” the information in the factual report and Guardian Alaska cooperated fully in the investigation.
“We made an extraordinary effort to successfully locate and recover the aircraft lost at sea, for subsequent evaluation by the NTSB,” the statement said. “We await the Final Report from the NTSB with the results of its analysis, findings, and probable cause of this accident, which is expected in a number of months.”
Guardian is one of a half-dozen companies providing air ambulance services around Alaska, where it can cost tens of thousands of dollars for medical evacuations from places hundreds of miles from the closest hospital.
Kake, a village of just under 600 people, is on Kupreanof Island about 50 miles east of Sitka.
The report includes the last communications between the pilot and air traffic controllers just a few minutes before the crash. Controllers cleared the plane for approach into Kake and to switch radio frequencies.
“OK we’re switching good day,” pilot Coyle says.
A witness at the Kake airport saw the pilot-activated runway lights switch on. She contacted Guardian when the plane didn’t arrive within minutes.
The wreckage wasn’t found for weeks despite scores of volunteers and agencies involved in the search. Searchers spotted debris in the water, including part of a wing, in the days following the plane’s disappearance, but the main wreckage wasn’t discovered until April 2019.
The plane was “heavily fragmented” when it hit the water and came to rest 500 feet down in Frederick Sound, lead investigator Brice Banning noted in the report.
The engines showed “no indications of any pre-impact mechanical anomalies ... that would have precluded normal engine operation,” investigators found.
The plane’s cockpit voice recorder was recovered but didn’t contain a recording of the crash flight, according to the report. Instead, the most recent audio apparently was made during a landing in Fort Yukon in 2015. The NTSB crash docket includes a 2006 safety alert advising operators of a federal requirement to check the recorders before the first flight of every day to make sure they’re working properly.
At the time of the crash, Guardian Flight operated about 85 fixed- and rotor-wing aircraft dedicated to air medical flights in the upper Midwest, Mountain West, Southwest, Alaska and Hawaii, according to the company.
Founded by Frontier Flying Service in 1997, Guardian became a Fairbanks-based stand-alone critical-care ambulance service to the Interior by 2000.
Guardian in 2008 was purchased by Utah-based Air Medical Resource Group, now part of the country’s largest provider of emergency air-medical services. By 2011, Guardian’s Alaska range extended to much of the state with bases in Sitka, Ketchikan, Dutch Harbor, Kotzebue, Juneau and Anchorage, home to Guardian’s statewide corporate and maintenance hub.