Crime & Courts

Fairbanks pilot convicted of lying to investigators after fatal 2014 crash is sentenced to a year in prison

A Fairbanks pilot convicted of lying to federal investigators after a fatal Brooks Range crash in 2014 was sentenced Wednesday to spend a year in prison.

Jurors decided last fall in federal court that Forest Kirst was guilty of obstructing the crash investigations performed by the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board after the crash.

In August 2014, three Canadian tourists boarded Kirst’s Ryan Navion four-seater for a flightseeing tour out of Bettles.

The plane began flying too low, and "after circling over a moose in a pond, the airplane lacked the power and altitude to clear Atigun Pass,” according to federal prosecutors.

The plane crashed below the Dalton Highway and above a trans-Alaska pipeline maintenance road. All four people on board were seriously injured. Passenger Darrell Spencer, 66, died just over a month after the crash from the injuries he sustained.

[Report: Pilot error caused fatal Atigun Pass plane crash -- but FAA shares blame]

Federal prosecutors said that Kirst lied to investigators by misleading them about the altitude he was flying at prior to the crash and that he told several different versions about what happened just beforehand. The charges were filed in 2017, and a jury convicted him in November 2019 on two counts of obstructing the crash investigation but found him not guilty on a federal charge of flying without a valid airman’s certificate.

Kirst spoke during Wednesday’s hearing to deny that he lied to investigators and instead blamed the crash on a propeller he said was improperly installed and came apart during flight. Federal investigations did not show that the propeller came off during flight, but found that it had come off during the crash.

In 2016, Kirst filed a civil personal injury and wrongful death lawsuit, along with the two surviving passengers and Spencer’s wife, against the company that sold him the propeller. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, and the group was ordered to pay $98,000 in attorney fees to the company.

Federal judge Ralph Beistline sentenced Kirst to spend a year and a day in prison, followed by three years of probation. Kirst will also pay a $5,000 fine.

Beistline said the sentence was needed to send a message to the aviation community and passengers about Alaska’s commitment to safety.

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