NTSB Investigators Will Spend Days at Alaska Crash Site

Slack Davis Sanger aviation attorney Mark Pierce contributed to this article written for the Greer-Taylors (South Carolina) Patch, a community news and information website. Mark spoke about Slack Davis Sanger’ past experience with Alaska air crashes and the current National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation.

NTSB Investigators Will Spend Days at Alaska Crash Site
Posted by Carolyn Farr Smith, Editor, Greer-Taylors Patch
July 9, 2013

According to the NTSB, investigators will spend 5 to 7 days at the crash site, but determining official cause of deadly crash will likely take time. NTSB Senior Aviation Accident Investigator Dan Bower will serve as investigator-in-charge.

The plane was operated by Rediske Air in Nikiski, Alaska, and piloted by Walter “Willie” Rediske, a company spokesman told the Anchorage Daily News.

The pilot had been taking guests to Bear Mountain Lodge Sunday. As the plane prepared to leave, the newspaper reported the weather was cloudy with light winds.

Mark Pierce, a partner with Slack Davis Sanger, a national law firm representing victims of plane and helicopter crashes, says the investigation will be a long and tedious one.

Pierce’s firm has represented victims of Alaskan crashes in more than five different cases. Pierce, who is also a FAA-certified commercial pilot and flight instructor, said the geography of Alaska is very different and the rough terrain and inadequate highway system make air travel more common.

Pierce said NTSB investigators will look closely at the number of passengers, the weight of the baggage, and the amount of fuel on board.

“In the circumstances known to exist — crash near the airport, lots of fuel and passengers — the weight and balance of the plane are primary suspects,” Pierce said.

“Most airplanes you can’t fill up all the seats, have fuel on-board and load on baggage without being overweight.”

Pierce said the responsibility of weight and what’s on board is that of the pilot.

“The pilot has the responsibility to weigh or make an educated guess of baggage, people and fuel,” Pierce said. “With a crash on takeoff, mild weather conditions, you have to look at the airplane itself, piloting decisions, and operation of the plane.”

Pierce said from everything he has learned about the crash, the pilot was highly regarded, very experienced and a local guy who would have known local challenges. Pierce said knowing that, he would suspect the plane was overloaded.

“This is prime time to fly in Alaska,” Pierce said. “Takeoff on a mild day should not be a challenging event; something went wrong with plane, the pilot or the load and stability of the airplane.”

Pierce said vacationers often hire an air taxi to take them to a lodge for a weekend or even for a day trip. He said the charters are regulated by the FAA and have pretty strict guidelines, but there are still risks that the average person may not be aware of when they charter such a plane.

Pierce said the company involved in this crash was also involved in a crash in 2001. He said the pilot in that case had struck an object and broken a part of the wing during a takeoff roll and still decided to go airborne.

Pierce said the NTSB will look at the aircraft, the operating records, the maintenance records and the pilot’s logs as they work to find what happened Sunday.

Built in 1958, the aircraft itself will also face scrutiny, he said. Investigators will take a close look at the plane’s history and the condition of the plane.

“It doesn’t mean the craft wasn’t airworthy, but a plane of that age – they will take a close look at those things,” Pierce said.

Because of the fiery crash, Pierce said a lot of evidence was destroyed, making those records even more valuable.

Pierce said that NTSB investigators could take days, months or even years to investigate.

“There’s no statute of limitations on how long it takes,” Pierce said.

But Pierce said one thing he does know is that NTSB is treating the crash as a major event because of the number of fatalities.

“It will get a lot of attention from NTSB,” Pierce said. “They are putting extra resources on the ground, which doesn’t mean faster, it just means there will be more people on the ground assessing the evidence.”

Pierce said that preserving the crash scene is of the utmost importance. Investigators will divide up the components at the crash site. Each individual investigator will be assigned a certain workload. He said tell-tale information can be found in broken parts, damaged parts, and distribution of the wreckage.

“There are things you can learn from angle, the impact, the debris,” Pierce said. “A massive fire makes it more difficult to isolate components and some things they just won’t ever have. The records part of the investigation will be crucial.”

Another thing that investigators won’t have is a black box or a voice recorder. Pierce said because it was a single-engine plane, there’s no requirement by the FAA for the aircraft to have one.

“That’s a regulatory thing, I wish the FAA would extend it that requirement — this is a for-profit operation, not a pleasure flight or self-piloting this is a business.”

However, two cell phones were found in the wreckage, NTSB board member Earl Weener, who was on scene in Alaska, told the Anchorage Daily News. They’ll be analyzed for recordings or photos that could provide clues to the crash, he said.

Weener said investigators were looking at different ways the pilot could have lost control of the plane.

“We’ll look at weather. We’ll look at the loading. We’ll look at the mechanical performance of the airplane, try to understand what the condition of the flight controls were,” Weener said.

Pierce said while the investigation is slow and meticulous, he hopes that the investigation will offer something that will prevent other tragedies like this from happening again.