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Pilot says he didn't know he had been in midair collision until after landing

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 1, 2015

WASILLA -- The air taxi pilot involved in Sunday's midair crash at Talkeetna Airport told supervisors he didn't know he'd collided with another plane until he landed and opened his door.

The collision over the airport's southbound runway around 5:30 p.m. involved a Talkeetna Air Taxi Cessna 185 with four passengers and a Cessna 172 with a solo pilot, authorities say. A photograph of the wreckage shows the air taxi crushing the back half of the smaller plane.

The only person injured in the collision was the Cessna 172 pilot, 27-year-old Cole Hagge of Eagle River. Hagge remained hospitalized at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center on Monday but was expected to recover.

The air taxi pilot was 32-year-old Antonio "Tony" Benavides of Anchorage, working his first season with the Talkeetna air carrier that ferries tourists and climbers to nearby Mount McKinley.

The collision occurred just before touchdown, about 20 feet above the runway, said Paul Roderick, director of operations for Talkeetna Air Taxi.

Benavides said he reported via VHF radio that he was following another plane, an Otter, in for a landing, Roderick said. The air taxi pilot told him he didn't hear the Cessna 172 pilot on the radio.

Just before Benavides landed, he said, the plane "pitched up slightly and (he) pushed forward," Roderick said. Then he touched down.

"He never even saw the plane until like he opened the door, because it was right underneath him," he said.

The air taxi carried four female passengers: three Chinese Americans and one Chinese national, according to Roderick. The plane sustained propeller and landing gear damage.

The busy Talkeetna runway remained partly open Sunday, with about 500 feet of it shut down until the two "merged" planes could be recovered, he said.

Investigators say it's too early to say what caused the planes to collide.

Shaun Williams, the lead National Transportation Safety Board investigator on the accident, said Monday he's hoping to obtain recordings of the radio traffic in the area before the collision. Both pilots should have been on the same frequency, he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is also involved in the investigation.

Williams on Monday talked with two witnesses and one pilot who engaged in radio traffic with one of the two pilots before the crash. He asked anyone who saw or heard the collision to call 907-271-5001.

He couldn't confirm reports that the Cessna 172 pilot was a student pilot. Total flight hours and certifications of both pilots were not immediately available.

Both pilots should have been on a VHF radio frequency that aviators use to communicate in areas without air-traffic controllers.

Pilots have a responsibility to "see and avoid" other aircraft. But the airspace over Mat-Su is notoriously busy, with numerous airports and private strips. Radio transmissions have received critical scrutiny in recent years, particular after a 2011 midair collision that killed a family of four from Anchorage and was blamed on pilots using different radio frequencies. In an effort to make sure pilots communicate with each other clearly, the FAA last year made changes to assigned radio frequencies.

Remarkably, the Talkeetna collision marks the second midair crash in Alaska this year with no fatalities. Two planes collided near Knik-Goose Bay Road in January, one of them an Alaska Wildlife Troopers aircraft. Both pilots survived.

Williams, the NTSB investigator, warned pilots taking advantage of a warmer-than-usual forecast for Alaska this summer to stay vigilant on blue-sky days.

"We've been lucky where we've had two midair collisions this year and zero fatalities, which is unbelievable," Williams said.

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