Aviation

Communication failures and poor weather led to deadly 2020 plane crash in Southwest Alaska, NTSB says

Yute crash

A series of operational oversights led a newly hired Yute Commuter Service pilot to depart in poor weather that gave way to flat light and whiteout conditions, resulting in a plane crash near Tuntutuliak in 2020 that killed all five people onboard, according to a recently released report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Yute Commuter Service had “inadequate operational control procedures, which permitted the pilot to depart into conditions that were below the minimums specified by their operating procedures,” the final investigation report said.

Pilot Tony Matthews, 34, had joined the company about a month before the Feb. 6, 2020 crash and finished training about a week before that flight, according to investigation. It was his fourth line flight with Yute, the report said.

[Earlier coverage: Pilot joined Yute Commuter Service a month before crash that left 5 dead in Southwest Alaska]

Yute is owned by Paklook Air and is described on its website as an airline that flies throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

On Feb. 6, 2020, the Piper PA-32 left the Bethel Airport for Kipnuk, a village about 80 miles southwest. During the flight, investigators said Matthews likely experienced flat light and whiteout conditions, which caused the plane to crash into snow-covered terrain roughly 12 miles southwest of Tuntutuliak about a half hour after departure.

Matthews and Kipnuk residents Quintin Peter, 18; Quintin’s mother, Carrie Peter, 45; Charlie Carl, 66; and Donna Mesak, 42, all died.

During an interview with NTSB investigators, Yute’s general manager said new pilots generally have limitations for flight, but there were no standard limitations and also no procedure for recording or communicating each pilot’s specific limitations to whomever was in charge of dispatching the flight that day.

Weather conditions along the route were not favorable that morning. When Matthews took off, there were overcast clouds around 600 feet and 1 1/4-mile visibility, the final report said. He departed under special visual flight rules clearance.

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

The company’s minimum requirements for takeoff are a 500-foot cloud ceiling with a visibility of 2 miles at both the departure and arrival points, although that was “not a condition that we want to be flying around in,” the general manager told NTSB investigators during an interview. “That is to get safely on the ground from somewhere.”

Weather conditions that were more fitting for new pilots are generally closer to a 1,000-foot cloud ceiling and 5 miles of visibility, he told investigators.

Investigators said they were unable to locate a risk assessment form for the flight, which company officials said is completed by the pilot and then assessed by whomever is in charge of releasing the flight that day. Investigators could not determine who approved the flight to depart that morning, the report said.

“Based on the available information, a lack of operational control permitted the pilot to depart into weather conditions that were below the minimums specified by company operating procedures,” the NTSB report said.

Officials from Yute were not available to discuss the report this week, a representative for the company said when reached by phone on Thursday.

In the aftermath of the crash, the former general manager told a reporter the company planned to add safety requirements, including an increased training period for new pilots and limits on how far they could fly.

A wrongful death lawsuit was filed by one of the victims’ families against Paklook Air, which owns Yute, two months after the crash.

The sudden deaths will forever impact Kipnuk, said Denise Chaney. Her uncle, Charlie Carl, died in the crash. Chaney said her children, who were close with Carl, still cry when they remember him. Her family struggled with subsistence during the last few years, as Carl was always the one to make sure their freezers were full, she said.

Both Carrie Peter and Donna Mesak were mothers, she said, and they are deeply missed by their children.

A settlement was reached with Paklook, said the family’s attorney Jim Valcarce, but the terms of the agreement are confidential.

Chaney said she and the other families were upset by the findings in the NTSB’s report. Had Yute officials done things differently that morning, all five people onboard would be alive, she said.

“Reading that report, I was mind blown by how many times it could have been prevented, by how many different people,” she said. “For an inexperienced pilot to go out there — I feel like it was pretty much a set-up for him, as well, because he lost his life, too, and his family is suffering.”

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.

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