Aviation

Fatal 2019 plane crash in Unalaska is subject of NTSB probable cause hearing Tuesday

The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to discuss mechanical problems, company culture and weather at a probable cause hearing Tuesday for a fatal 2019 plane crash in Unalaska.

The plane operated by Ravn Air Group overran the runway, killing one passenger and injuring nine others. The death of 38-year-old Washington state resident David Allan Oltman was the first crash-related fatality for a U.S. commercial passenger airline in a decade.

PenAir Flight 3296, a Saab SA-2000, was making a second attempt to land in windy conditions on the notoriously tricky Aleutian runway in October 2019. The plane crashed through a perimeter fence, crossed a road and came to rest on shoreline rocks at the edge of a harbor.

Investigators found problems with an anti-skid device on the Saab 2000 turboprop, reports released late last year show. They also found the pilots landed in gusty, shifting winds without the flying time traditionally required for Unalaska’s short runway, which is often beset by bad weather. A report that’s included in a massive fact-finding docket voiced concerns about Ravn’s safety culture at the time.

During Tuesday’s meeting, which will be held virtually, the five-member safety board will vote on investigators’ findings and recommendations as well as any changes made to a draft report.

A link to the meeting webcast will be available shortly before it starts at 9 a.m. Tuesday at ntsb.windrosemedia.com.

[Commercial aviation is essential to life in Alaska. It’s also home to a growing share of the country’s deadly crashes.]

Oltman died after parts of the plane’s propeller pierced the cockpit. One passenger was seriously injured and eight others sustained minor injuries, investigators say. The flight crew and the other 29 passengers were unhurt.

The flight was sold by Alaska Airlines and marketed under the PenAir name, short for longtime Alaska carrier Peninsula Airways, which previously 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 planes in 2018 after PenAir declared bankruptcy. Ravn Air Group declared its own bankruptcy in 2020, about five months after the Unalaska crash.

A new company, Ravn Alaska, emerged from bankruptcy proceedings in November.

The board will consider the recommendations of investigators in a draft probable cause report to be released publicly on Tuesday, the same day of the meeting.

It’s possible members will disagree with some of the findings. Such hearings are similar to court proceedings. Each board member votes and the majority wins.

This investigation is unusual in that the case combines all three of the “man, machine and environment” elements federal aviation investigators usually consider: the decisions of the pilots and the company culture; potential issues with the brakes; and the weather at the time of the crash.

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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