Twelve months ago, on Oct. 17, 2019, PenAir Flight 3296 overran the runway while landing at the Dutch Harbor airport, resulting in one passenger killed and four others injured. Since then, Ravn Alaska, which owned PenAir along with sister companies Corvus Airlines and Hageland Aviation, declared bankruptcy and auctioned off or sold the bulk of its assets. Company executives blamed Ravn’s failure on the coronavirus, but on the Flight 3296 anniversary, it is worth considering just what happened to PenAir in the single year it was owned by Ravn, and what we have learned since the accident that exposes problems within the company in the months leading up to the tragedy.
Soon after the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board released an investigative update detailing the flight crew’s minimal experience in the aircraft. Ravn stopped all flights of the Saab 2000 into Unalaska and Alaska Airlines dropped the lucrative Capacity Passenger Agreement (CPA) it had with Ravn. The loss of the CPA, which paid Ravn for the Unalaska flights at “predetermined rates plus a negotiated margin, regardless of the number of passengers on board or the revenue collected," had serious financial ramifications for the company. Questions raised by the NTSB’s preliminary investigation, however, left Alaska Airlines with little choice.
According to the NTSB’s initial report, and heavily covered in the media, the pilot in command (PIC) for Flight 3296 had an estimated 20,000 hours total flight time, but only 101 hours in the Saab 2000 (the co-pilot, with 1,446 hours total time, had 147 hours in the aircraft). Under PenAir’s previous ownership by the Seybert family, PICs were required to have 300 hours minimum in the Saab 2000 before operating into Dutch Harbor. (Similar requirements have existed for other companies operating at the challenging airfield.)
Based on the PenAir Operations Manual, flight-time minimums could be waived if approved by the company Chief Pilot. While the existence of such a waiver has not been addressed publicly, one month after the accident, the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that Chief Pilot Crystal Branchaud had been replaced and no longer held a position of operational control with PenAir. The extent to which she or any other management personnel played a role in assigning the PIC to Flight 3296 will likely receive serious attention in the accident’s final report.
Another area of significant interest for investigators will be the flight crew’s decision to land in turbulent weather conditions. In the report, the NTSB stated that when Flight 3296 first attempted to land on Runway 13, the winds were at 10 knots from 270 degrees. After initiating a go-around, the winds were reported at 16 knots, gusting to 30, from 290 degrees. While on final approach the second time, the winds were 24 knots from 300 degrees, providing almost a direct tailwind. The aircraft was configured for approach with 20 degrees of flaps both times.
Aircraft landing performance standards are based on multiple factors including weight and balance, wind and runway conditions. While Flight 3296′s weight and balance has not been released, it is possible to determine a conservative estimate of its total weight from available data. According to the manufacturer, the aircraft has a basic empty weight of about 30,500 pounds (this includes the three-member crew). Adding fuel for required reserves and Cold Bay as an alternate destination (about 2,000 pounds) and weight for 39 passengers at the FAA standard for summer adults (195 lbs x 39 = 7,605 pounds), a total weight of 40,105 pounds can be calculated. This excludes any baggage that may have been onboard.
For Runway 13 at Dutch Harbor, PenAir’s company performance standards permitted a landing weight, with 20 degrees of flaps, of 40,628 pounds with zero wind, 35,402 pounds for 5 knots of tailwind and 29,955 pounds for 10 knots of tailwind. It recommended a reduction of 1,031 pounds for each additional knot of tailwind. There is thus no discernible calculation that would recommend landing on Runway 13 with the reported winds at the time of the crash at the aircraft’s approximate weight.
According to the NTSB, the flight crew reported touching down about 1,000 feet down the runway, with skid marks first appearing at about 1,840 feet. From there, the marks continued 200 feet before the aircraft crossed a grassy area, impacted the airport’s perimeter fence, crossed a ditch, hit a large rock and then crossed Ballyhoo Road. It was on the opposite shoulder of the road, over the rock seawall and nearly into the waters of Dutch Harbor, that Flight 3296 finally came to rest.
After the aircraft stopped and a desperate but ultimately unsuccessful effort was underway to save the life of passenger David Oltman, the flight crew waited with forward passengers for assistance in exiting. It was at that point, according to passenger Steve Ranney, that a brief verbal exchange occurred. “A passenger asked the captain why he landed,” explained Ranney in an email, “and he calmly said the computer showed he was within the safety margin.” According to Ranney, who was interviewed by NTSB investigators, neither the captain nor co-pilot spoke another word.
There is no onboard computer that calculates landing performance for the Saab 2000; the PIC could only have been referring to an app likely used on his company-issued iPad. “Electronic flight bags” are commonly utilized by pilots, but the use of any software for the purposes of formal flight planning in commercial operation would have to be approved by the FAA. When asked if PenAir had authorization to utilize performance calculation software, the FAA referred the question, as part of an ongoing investigation, to the NTSB. The NTSB would state only that “crew performance standards equipment procedures and a host of other factors” would be part of the investigation.
Decision-making is always an area of particular inquiry following a commercial crash, both on the part of the flight crew and company management. As investigators moved from the aircraft to the cockpit and back to the offices of PenAir, Ravn Air Group and even the FAA, there are other events in 2019 that may have garnered interest and point to further issues within the newly acquired company.
In February last year, PenAir Flight 3298 suffered an engine loss about an hour after departing King Salmon. In a statement to ADN at the time, FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the aircraft “experienced engine trouble, so pilots shut it down." The flight crew then returned to the village. In a subsequent Service Difficulty Report (SDR), the company reported a “right engine auto shutdown in flight, did not attempt restart. Troubleshooting in progress.” It is unknown what the final remedy was for that engine.
In July, PenAir Flight 2051 was en route from Anchorage to Dillingham when it suffered the loss of the right engine near its destination. As later detailed in a passenger complaint submitted to the FAA, the flight crew chose to turn around and fly all the way back to Anchorage on only one engine.
PenAir subsequently reported in an SDR that there was a “RT engine overtemp in cruise with auto shutdown” and that the engine was to be removed and replaced. Additionally, in a separate SDR the same day, the company reported a problem with the aircraft’s left engine, which went to “0 PU’s 5SEC." The remedy was for that engine also to be replaced.
No mention of the problems with the left engine nor the necessary replacement of both engines was passed on to the passenger who filed the complaint. Neither was an explanation provided for the flight crew’s decision to forgo immediate landing at the nearest suitable airport (as required by federal regulation 121.565). FAA Safety Inspector David Friend wrote to the passenger, a licensed pilot from the Bristol Bay region, that “it has been determined that the flight crew acted within the scope of all applicable Federal Aviation Regulations and associated PenAir Operations Specifications.” In a subsequent Freedom of Information Act request I submitted for a deviation of 121.565 report, the FAA responded that nothing pertaining to my request existed.
Months later, in the days after the crash of Flight 3296, Ravn announced a shift to using Dash-8 aircraft on the route and company management initiated a concerted effort to deflect blame to the Saab 2000. In an October 25 town hall meeting, CEO Dave Pflieger said Ravn would “need to go through a multifaceted process to ensure it is safe to land Saabs in Unalaska before they can return to service there.” This negative sentiment was echoed by Ravn’s new management, which acquired the PenAir and Corvus Airlines certificates along with several Dash-8 aircraft in a private sale last summer. In a July interview with KUCB, that company’s CEO, Rob McKinney, responded to questions about safe operations in rural Alaska by commenting on the crash of Flight 3296. “The Saab 2000 has a narrower margin of safety,” he asserted, “so that... potentially was a contributory cause of that unfortunate accident last year.”
Both Pfleiger and McKinney’s assessments ran sharply counter to the more than two years of accident-free flying with the aircraft under the Seyberts' ownership, including thousands of flights into Unalaska. Further, from the time the Saab 2000s were acquired by the Seyberts and long before they were put into service, there was extensive flight testing, upgrades, modifications and certifications required for their transition to Part 121. All of this was heavily supervised by the FAA. By the time PenAir was purchased by Ravn in October 2018, there was nothing left for the Saab 2000 to prove; the aircraft simply needed the company to assign pilots who were trained how to fly it.
For now, Alaska Airlines flies scheduled service into Cold Bay, with continuing service to Unalaska provided by Grant Aviation. Alaska Central Express offers both regular cargo flights and passenger charter service and other operators, including Dena’ina Airtaxi, Alaska Air Transit, Resolve Aviation and Security Aviation also fly passenger charters. The Saab 2000s, which were leased by PenAir, have been parked at Anchorage International by their Florida-based owner since Ravn’s collapse. They will likely be relocated to the Lower 48 for maintenance and storage in the near future.
The NTSB’s final report on Flight 3296 should be released early next year. What it will reveal about problematic risk management assessments at all levels of the company is of great interest to anyone following aviation safety in Alaska. And while the detrimental fallout from the subsequent pandemic can not be ignored, it must be noted that Ravn was the only Alaska aviation company of significant size to file for bankruptcy after the virus. Further, although Ravn destroyed numerous financial, professional and customer relationships, many other companies shouldered the pieces it left behind while still continuing to navigate the current uncertain economic landscape.
The easiest thing in the world would be to dismiss PenAir’s summer engine problems and the decisions leading up to the Unalaska crash, disregard how long Ravn’s $90 million worth of unpaid bills were accruing, pay no attention to the likely sky-high fleet insurance the company was paying and simply blame everything that happened to it on the coronavirus. But just like the transparent attempt to shift responsibility of the Flight 3296 tragedy onto the aircraft, this would also require a determination to blindly ignore so many events leading up to Ravn’s demise, including its 16 accidents and incidents over the previous ten years. It is worth noting the most recent of those was not Flight 3296, but rather a gear-up landing by Hageland Aviation in Fairbanks, four months before Ravn shut down. It was easy to miss that one when the company was so loudly insisting everything was COVID-19′s fault.
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