Alaskans will be able to get an investigator's-eye view of several prominent recent plane crashes when a TV series chronicling the National Transportation Safety Board's work in the state premieres next month.
"Alaska Aircrash Investigations" will debut on the Smithsonian Channel on March 13. The show, billed as a "docu-series" in a statement Tuesday outlining its scope, covers half a dozen fatal Alaska plane crashes during the summer of 2015.
"'Alaska Aircrash Investigations' follows five NTSB members as they risk their lives in extreme environments to access remote crash sites in the unpredictable Alaskan wilderness," producers wrote. "From dense forests to raging rivers, there is no place impenetrable for the 'Go Team.' Every investigation tests these brave men and women, from the seasoned veterans to the rookies who are just beginning their careers in air safety."
The six-episode series features the NTSB's Alaska chief, Clint Johnson, as well as investigators Brice Banning and Shaun Williams. Two more investigators seen in the show, Chris Shaver and Millicent Hoidal, are moving to Outside postings with the board, as Johnson reviews candidates to replace them.
Johnson said Tuesday that the Smithsonian Channel's series is not a reality show. He emphasized the effort producers and crews took to accurately depict investigators' work.
"We're asked to do these (reality) things all the time and we just say, 'No, thank you very much,'" Johnson said.
But the Smithsonian Channel, a joint venture between Showtime Networks and the Smithsonian Institution, took a different tack, contacting the NTSB's Office of Public Affairs, which in turn called Johnson. He said his staff then gave the idea of a TV show more thought.
"They asked, 'Do you want to do this?'" Johnson said. "I got my folks together, asked, 'Do you want to do this -- do you want to give it a shot?' and the rest is history."
Despite the change of heart, Johnson -- who appeared several years ago on the National Geographic Channel series "Alaska Wing Men" -- said it wasn't a decision any of the investigators made lightly.
"It's work," Johnson said. "It adds a whole layer of administration, not only on my part but also on the investigators' part."
Ultimately, the show meant NTSB staff had to interact with a camera crew of four to five people while speaking with crash victims' loved ones, answering questions from the media and consulting with other parties in crash investigations. Johnson said the Smithsonian Channel crews were frequently seen last year filming members of the Anchorage office at crash sites, which made the pending show an open secret.
"I don't think it's going to be a surprise, especially for the aviation community," Johnson said.
A written contract between the network and the NTSB barred Smithsonian Channel crews from traveling on government-operated aircraft. When the Alaska State Troopers flew Hoidal to Iliamna after the Sept. 15 crash of a de Havilland Otter killed three people, the camera crew flew commercial and arrived later in the day.
In general, Johnson said, the show follows the NTSB's own tradition of omitting identification of crash victims unless family members come forward. He said the show's contract also let the board review rough cuts of each episode in advance, granting the NTSB veto power to remove imagery of bodies or inaccurate material. Public dockets on each crash covered in the show will be released before their respective episodes air.
"We went out of our way to ensure there would be the utmost respect," Johnson said. "Privacy issues were paramount for us -- no ifs, ands or buts."
While NTSB investigators have been seen on other shows, Johnson said, "Alaska Aircrash Investigations" will offer a unique perspective no other office of the board has provided. The first episode, involving the Wings of Alaska crash near Juneau that killed pilot Fariah Peterson on July 17, features investigator Chris Shaver being lowered 150 feet from an H-60 helicopter into a rain forest canopy.
Johnson said the NTSB didn't receive any payment in connection with the show, just as Alaska State Troopers weren't paid to appear on the National Geographic Channel show "Alaska State Troopers." He said the point of the Smithsonian Channel show was exposure, in keeping with the NTSB's interest in transparency.
"I think it's going to be worthwhile," Johnson said. "It's going to give the public an unprecedented first-time look at how we conduct our investigations."
Although the producers have expressed interest in making more episodes of the show, the Alaska NTSB staff is still taking stock.
"They've left that door open for us," Johnson said. "I think it's way too early to tell -- we'll have to kind of see."
In Anchorage, the Smithsonian Channel appears on the GCI cable dial at Channel 642, where it's only available as part of a high-definition TV package offered by the company.
Here's a list of "Alaska Aircrash Investigations" episodes provided by the Smithsonian Channel, with links to Alaska Dispatch News stories on the crashes they depict:
"Alaska Aircrash Investigations"
JUNEAU FLIGHT DOWN
Premieres Sunday, March 13, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
When a recent transplant to Alaska crashes a commuter plane west of Juneau, Chris Shaver launches an investigation to see whether the fatal crash was caused by mechanical issues or pilot error. On-scene investigation and a wreckage layout provide few clues. But recovered in-flight data reveals an unusual flight path, which might uncover the true cause of the tragedy.
TRAPPER CREEK TRAGEDY
Premieres Sunday, March 20, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Senior investigator Brice Banning goes to the site of an Alaska tragedy: a bush pilot flying over his daughter's wedding party, who fatally crashed into nearby trees. Meanwhile, investigator Millicent Hoidal looks into a crash near the remote town of Bethel and uncovers a troubling medical issue that could have contributed to the pilot's fatal flight.
ENGINE OUT OVER KASILOF
Premieres Sunday, March 27, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
When a Cessna 180 crashes on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, two lives are lost … along with nearly all the evidence. After a terrible post-crash fire, investigator Shaun Williams must piece together eyewitness accounts from a grieving community, and compare that with the surviving pieces of wreckage. It takes a trip to an Alabama engine factory and back to Alaska to begin to make sense of the mysterious final sounds of the aircraft.
DISASTER IN THE TUNDRA
Premieres Sunday, April 3, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
A tourist flight crashes just after takeoff from a remote fishing lodge, killing several passengers. The wreckage layout reveals that neither the airframe nor the engine caused the crash. Now the "Go Team" must launch a probe into the bizarre noises described by the survivors in the last minutes of the flight, and painstakingly determine whether the aircraft was overloaded past its weight limit.
LOST IN THE KNIK ARM
Premieres Sunday, April 10, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Newcomer Shaun Williams gets a report at midnight of a downed plane in a local bay, but by dawn, the aircraft has disappeared under the waters of Knik Arm. With rescuers and helicopters attempting to recover the wreckage, Williams tries to determine what caused the plane to plunge only two miles before its planned landing. When the fatal crash is pulled from the water, the NTSB rules out mechanical problems, leaving the possibly damaged GPS as the only evidence that might solve the mystery.
PLANE DOWN IN BIG LAKE
Premieres Sunday, April 17, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
A 23-year-old pilot's Cessna plunges nose first into a public road near Big Lake, and investigator Millicent Hoidal must piece together the evidence remaining from the fiery crash. A set of missing logbooks and a propeller with no serial number complicate the investigation, which must rely on a deep dive into the young pilot's history and training to determine the final cause of the disaster.