The pilot in a fatal air-taxi crash on Kodiak Island this month told investigators he made a forced landing after the plane carrying four passengers seemed to have been caught in a downdraft, according to a preliminary report released Thursday.
Two passengers were killed when the Piper PA-32-300 operated by Vertigo Air Taxi crashed in mountainous terrain July 2 after takeoff from the town of Old Harbor on the southeast coast of Kodiak Island. The pilot and two other passengers were seriously injured, one of them critically.
The bodies of the two passengers who died — Kodiak resident Rodney Murdock, 73, and Texas resident Byron Chitwood, 91 — were recovered a day after the crash, according to Alaska State Troopers.
The pilot told National Transportation Safety Board investigators that shortly after he took off from Old Harbor, he flew north into an area of rising terrain covered in trees and alder, according to the preliminary NTSB report.
The pilot said he determined he needed to make a 180-degree turn to gain altitude so the plane could clear a mountain pass, according to the preliminary report. The pilot maneuvered the plane to the right side of the valley they were flying in to make a climbing left turn, the report said.
The pilot told investigators that when the plane reached the right side of the valley, it wouldn’t climb, and he believed the aircraft was caught in a downdraft, according to the report.
“Fearing that the airplane had insufficient altitude to make the left turn and away from the rising terrain,” the pilot picked an area of mountainous, alder-covered terrain to make a forced landing, the report said.
As it crashed, the plane struck two mountainous spurs — or undulations in the topography — before it came to rest on a third, investigators wrote. The crash site is about 3 miles north of Old Harbor.
According to the report, the aircraft was operating as an on-demand charter flight that afternoon, taking the four passengers and their luggage back to Kodiak from Old Harbor. They were on their way back from Kodiak Sportsman’s Lodge.
The NTSB report didn’t specify whether the pilot had previous experience flying into or out of Old Harbor.
An investigator with the NTSB, along with troopers, reached the wreckage site the morning after the crash, and an initial examination of the scene revealed no “pre-accident anomalies,” according to the preliminary report.
A more detailed examination of the airframe and engine are still pending. Clint Johnson, chief of the NTSB’s Alaska office, said Thursday that the plane wreckage was recently recovered and flown out by helicopter. The engine has been shipped to Anchorage to be examined, he said.
As a standard part of the investigation, Johnson said, the NTSB will look into factors such as weight and balance, and the airplane’s load that day. More comprehensive interviews will also take place soon, he said.