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NTSB: Night-vision gear went unused before deadly float plane crash in Iliamna

  • Author: Chris Klint
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 25, 2015

The floatplane that crashed on takeoff in Iliamna last week, killing three of the 10 people on board, was fitted with an infrared camera for nighttime flying -- which authorities say wasn't used in the pre-dawn flight.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued its preliminary report Friday on the Sept. 15 crash of a de Havilland DHC-3T Turbine Otter, which was owned and operated by the Rainbow King Lodge. Passengers Tony W. DeGroot, 80, of Hanford, California; James P. Fletcher, 70, of Clovis, California; and James Specter, 69, of Shavertown, Pennsylvania, died in the crash.

A lodge employee who drove the passengers to East Wind Lake told the NTSB that the plane had been pre-loaded with the fishing gear they would require for the day. After the passengers boarded the Otter and the pilot started the engine, the employee untied the plane's floats so it could begin to taxi.

"The lodge employee reported that dark night conditions prevailed, but he was still able to watch the airplane as it started its westerly takeoff run," NTSB officials wrote. "He said that after the airplane began to climb, it descended, and the floats subsequently struck the surface of the water. The airplane then became airborne again, but he lost sight of it as it descended behind an area of rising, tree-covered terrain."

According to the report, 54-year-old pilot John Furnia of New York, as well as four of the surviving passengers, were seriously injured when the plane went down, and the other two passengers suffered minor injuries.

The list of surviving passengers included: Pennsylvania residents Justin L. Schillaci, 27, and David W. Wood, 67; California residents Robert J. Dingler, 62, and Rodger C. Glaspey, 65; Oregon resident Robert R. Westbrook, 23; and Utah resident Seth J. Hofland, 25. State business records list Glaspey as the lodge's director and president, with a 45 percent stake in the company.

All of the passengers on the Otter were headed to a remote fishing area on the Swikshak River about 75 miles northwest of Kodiak, according to a manager at the lodge who spoke with investigators.

Clint Johnson, the NTSB's chief Alaska investigator, had a brief answer when asked whether it was usual for an aircraft the size of an Otter to hit the water again on takeoff from a lake.

"No, not at all," Johnson said.

After a week of investigation, Johnson said, the NTSB hasn't made any determinations about which of the three possible factors in any plane crash might have been involved in Iliamna.

"This is a classic example of the man/machine/environment issues we always look at," Johnson said. "Usually it's a process of elimination, but all three of those items are still on the table right now -- we haven't eliminated any of those."

The NTSB report said the flight took place under Part 91 of Federal Aviation Administration regulations, governing general aviation operations including lodge-operated aircraft -- not Part 135, a stricter set of rules which governs flights by commercial air carriers.

FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said in an email Friday that a decades-old Hunter Guide Rule classified lodge flights as part of tour packages rather than as commercial air traffic. The Associated Press reported in 1999 that hunting and fishing guides defeated a bid by the FAA to regulate their flights as air taxi flights, and the FAA was ordered by Congress to write new rules covering lodge flights the following year.

"(The rule) essentially says that if a lodge is providing a guide service, the flight is considered as part of the package deal -- just as dinner, lodging, and the guiding itself -- then it's Part 91," Kenitzer wrote. "If you hire an aircraft to take you somewhere and drop you off, then it's Part 135."

According to the NTSB, the Otter was taking off from East Wind Lake at about 6 a.m. Sunrise didn't occur until 7:48 that morning, based on records from the U.S. Naval Observatory, and "civil twilight" began an hour after the crash.

A definition of civil twilight on the observatory's website describes it as "the limit at which twilight illumination is sufficient, under good weather conditions, for terrestrial objects to be clearly distinguished."

"In the morning before the beginning of civil twilight and in the evening after the end of civil twilight, artificial illumination is normally required to carry on ordinary outdoor activities," observatory staff wrote.

Despite the Otter's overall age -- de Havilland produced the plane from 1951 to 1967 -- its onboard systems were far more advanced.

"It was a recently retrofitted Turbine Otter -- it had an avionics suite that was definitely upgraded," Johnson said.

One of the additions, Johnson said, was an "enhanced flight vision system" featuring an infrared camera manufactured by Oregon-based Max-Viz. Video from the system can be shown on a multi-function display in the Otter's cockpit, requiring the pilot to look down to see where the plane is headed in dark conditions.

"We don't believe it was being used," Johnson said. "According to lodge folks, it really didn't do the job that they thought it would."

According to Kenitzer at the FAA, federal rules permitted the Otter's takeoff, provided it was properly outfitted to do so.

"There is no regulation that prohibits departures before civil twilight -- just the nighttime currency rules (three takeoffs and landings [within] the last 90 days) and the aircraft needs to be nighttime-equipped," Kenitzer wrote.

After the crash, the NTSB said locals scrambled to reach the scene. Later that morning, the Alaska Air National Guard sent an HC-130 search plane and crew to Iliamna to assist in treating the survivors and fly them to Anchorage for further medical attention.

"A search and rescue team was assembled consisting of Iliamna residents, lodge employees, and Alaska State Troopers," NTSB officials wrote. "Dark night conditions delayed the search and the discovery of the wreckage."

Hours after the crash, the Otter's left wing could be seen jutting upward from the tree line 100 yards beyond East Wind Lake. Its propeller blades were curved back and the front of the fuselage's underside was crumpled.

The Otter was subsequently moved to a hangar in Iliamna. Johnson said investigators with the safety board returned to inspect the wreckage in greater detail this week.

Johnson said that the NTSB hasn't yet determined whether the Otter's propeller was still under power from its Honeywell TPE 331 turbine engine when the plane hit the ground.

"No mechanical problems (have been) found yet," Johnson wrote in an email on the report. "An engine exam is pending."

NTSB investigators looking into the Otter's weight and balance have spoken with the people who loaded the floatplane before it took off on Sept. 15. Johnson said the Otter, which was carrying a complete set of gear for a day trip for 10 people, was "full" at the time of the crash.

"It was loaded the evening before; this is standard procedure for the industry," Johnson said. "They have everything that they need as far as cookstoves, everything they need to have a lunch on the beach out there -- they have chairs, they have food."

Representatives from Viking Air Ltd., the Canadian company that now maintains de Havilland airframes, as well as Texas Turbines -- the company that installed the Otter's 1,000-horsepower engine -- are headed to Alaska to consult with crash investigators, Johnson said.

"We are working very, very closely with both of those organizations, as well as Honeywell, to nail down the performance parameters of this aircraft," Johnson said. "We're not done yet."

At 5:53 a.m. on the day of the crash, the Iliamna Airport reported weather including winds from the west at 7 knots, with 10 statute miles of visibility and scattered clouds at 700 feet with overcast skies at 4,400 feet.

Friday's preliminary report is the first of three the NTSB will issue on the Iliamna crash. A factual report, including further details about what happened, will ultimately be followed by one in which the five-member safety board determines the crash's probable cause.

Alaska Dispatch News reporters Ben Anderson, Suzanna Caldwell and Megan Edge contributed information to this story.

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