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NTSB: Plane that crashed near Ketchikan flew in 'marginal' weather

The sightseeing plane that crashed June 25 near Ketchikan, killing the pilot and eight passengers, was flying under visual flight rules in "marginal" weather conditions, according to a new report released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The single-engine de Havilland Otter operated by Promech Air Inc. of Ketchikan was returning from Misty Fjords National Monument when it struck a near-vertical rock face in remote terrain about 25 miles northeast of Ketchikan.

"Marginal visual meteorological conditions were reported in the area at the time of the accident," the preliminary NTSB report states. The report contains facts about the crash but does not assign a cause.

Pilots operating under visual flight rules must do so under strict weather limits. Marginal visual conditions, sometimes also referred to as "marginal VFR," are a subset of those weather conditions near the legal minimums.

That means it was permissible for pilot Bryan Krill to be flying, given weather at the time, but conditions were at the edge of where a pilot could see and avoid other planes and terrain.

Promech declined to comment on the report or answer questions about it, saying it had been instructed to refer questions to the NTSB.

The float-equipped plane left a floating dock in Rudyerd Bay, about 44 miles northeast of Ketchikan, about noon. Its destination was a tour of Misty Fjords, an area of remote inland fjords, coastal waterways and mountainous, tree-covered terrain.

Krill's plane was the third in a group of four floatplanes to depart the bay, the report said. Not all the planes took the same route, and one — not Krill's — flew an alternative path entirely over water, Brice Banning, the NTSB's lead investigator, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

A search was initiated when Krill's Otter didn't return, and searchers heard the emergency locator transmitter emanating from a spot along the plane's anticipated route, according to the NTSB.

A helicopter launched in Ketchikan initially couldn't search the upper reaches of the mountainous terrain "due to low ceilings and poor visibility," the report said. The pilot waited for weather to improve and found the wreckage at about 2:30 p.m.

Members of the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad confirmed that everyone in the plane was dead.

An NTSB team reached the site on June 27 and found that the plane's nose had struck trees and a near-vertical rock face in a "nose high, wings level attitude" at about 1,600 feet above sea level, the report says. The Otter came to rest upright on top of its separated floats in a steep, heavily forested area.

The closest weather station was in Ketchikan, 24 miles southwest of the crash site, which was reporting wind from the southeast at 17 mph, gusting to 26 mph; visibility of 6 miles with rain and mist; and a few clouds at 800 feet, broken clouds at 1,200 feet and overcast at 2,700 feet.

The Otter was equipped with technology known as "Capstone" that displays the airplane's position over terrain using GPS, according to the report. Two units in the plane were shipped to the NTSB vehicle recorder laboratory in Washington, D.C.

The flight's passengers all came from the Holland America Line cruise ship Westerdam and had paid $370 for the tour, which includes a boat trip and sightseeing flight.

Promech Air issues full refunds if a trip is canceled because of bad weather, a company spokeswoman has said. If passengers cancel the trip up to three days before their cruise begins, they also get a full refund, said Sally Andrews, a Holland America spokeswoman. After that, they must pay a 10 percent fee, she said.

Andrews said that if passengers on the Misty Fjords excursion arrive at the national monument by boat and cannot fly back, they will be boated back. In the case of passengers on the Westerdam, which has only a six-hour layover in Ketchikan, the cruise line will postpone the ship's departure until the passengers return, Andrews said.

Holland America last week said it had indefinitely halted all business with Promech.

Krill, the pilot in the crash, in 1994 received an instrument rating, a credential allowing him to fly, under a flight plan, in weather bad enough for pilots to rely on instruments instead of visual cues, according to previous reports. He received his commercial certificate the next year.

A report assigning a probable cause will not be issued until the NTSB completes its investigation.

One of the next steps in that process is extricating the wreckage of the Otter from the crash site, but investigators can't do that until they get access to a heavy-lift helicopter that's expected to be fighting wildfires north of Fairbanks for at least another week, if not longer.

When the helicopter is available, the NTSB plans to move the wreckage to a hangar in Ketchikan for a few more days of examination.

Investigators will publicly release more materials in about six months, Banning said. That includes supporting documentation like interviews and photos.

The NTSB's final report on the probable cause of the crash will be issued in 12 to 18 months, Banning said.

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