Survivors don't always remember very much about an accident. In some cases, memory is affected by the body going into shock or receiving physical injury. Sometimes, an event is so horrifying that recall is blocked by mental mechanisms the brain provides for protection. When survivors do remember the unfolding of an accident scenario, or can supply details of preflight and in-flight activities, investigators are rewarded with unique information that otherwise might be unattainable. The NTSB recently completed its investigations into three accidents in which survivors were able to recall significant details for the agency's investigators.
A Cessna 207 was on a Part 135 on-demand charter flight from McGrath, Alaska, to Anvik, Alaska, when it crashed in mountainous terrain about 37 miles west of McGrath. There were six people on board. The pilot and one passenger died at the scene, and the other four passengers received serious injuries. Although the airplane departed in VFR conditions, IFR was reported along the route of flight. The entire flight was supposed to have been conducted in VFR conditions. The charter company had procedures in place for keeping tabs on the progress of its VFR flights. Investigators could find no record of a weather briefing having been obtained by the pilot before departure.
The passenger who was in the right front seat was interviewed by the NTSB's investigator while still in the hospital. His wife and two children also were passengers on the flight. He said the adults were school teachers, and they were being taken to Anvik before the start of the school year.
The passenger told the investigator that about 20 minutes after they took off from McGrath, as the flight was entering mountainous terrain, visibility began to drop due to low clouds, rain and fog. The passenger related that, at one point, the pilot commented, "This is getting pretty bad." The passenger said that the pilot then descended the airplane and continued flying it very close to the ground. The passenger said the airplane then climbed, but didn't stay at the higher altitude for too long before the pilot again descended.
The passenger told the investigator that it wasn't long after that when the airplane entered what the passenger described as "whiteout conditions." The next thing the passenger recalled was looking out the front windscreen and, just before impact seeing the mountainside suddenly appear out of the fog. He said that he lost consciousness as a result of the impact, and assumed that all of the survivors lost consciousness at the same time. He was the first to regain consciousness.
The passenger recalled that while boarding the airplane in McGrath, he happened to notice a satellite personal tracker that was clipped to the pilot's sun visor. He said that after the accident, he was able to find the device in the wreckage and began pushing the emergency SOS button. As a result of that action, the pilot's family members in Wasilla, Alaska, were notified that an alert signal had been received and they, in turn, called the charter company.
Company personnel had already started a telephone and radio search to try to locate the airplane because it hadn't arrived in Anvik when due. They thought the pilot might have diverted to another village. Being unable to find the aircraft by phone or radio, company personnel began an aerial search. The FAA subsequently issued a formal alert for the missing airplane, and search-and-rescue personnel from the Air National Guard's 210th Air Rescue Squadron in Anchorage began looking for the missing airplane. The crew of an Air National Guard C-130 tracked an analog 121 MHz ELT signal to an area of mountainous terrain, but the poor weather prevented searchers from reaching the site until the next morning. The four seriously injured passengers remained at the accident site overnight. In the morning, they were evacuated aboard an Air National Guard HH-60G helicopter.
An NTSB meteorologist did a comprehensive study of the weather conditions around the accident site. Results of the study were consistent with the description from the survivor. The forecast for the area included increasing instabilities over the region that were expected to produce rain showers, fog and reduced visibility. Satellite images captured about the time of the accident showed low clouds, light rain, drizzle, fog and instrument meteorological conditions in the area around the accident site.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's decision to continue VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in an in-flight collision with mountainous terrain.
The surviving passenger who was on board a Mooney M20J that hit trees and crashed after a nighttime takeoff from Spring Hill Airport (70N), Sterling, Pa., was able to tell investigators a lot about what happened before the accident flight. The commercial pilot and a pilot-rated passenger were killed. The survivor received serious injuries. The pilot had filed an IFR flight plan. The planned destination was Republic Airport (FRG), Farmingdale, N.Y.
The surviving passenger told investigators he arrived at FRG earlier on the day of the accident for the flight with the pilot and the other passenger. He said he was in the back and the pilot-rated passenger was in the right front seat. He said the right front-seat passenger didn't fly the airplane at any time. He recalled the pilot commenting that they were a little overweight when they took off from Farmingdale. The flight went to Lancaster, Pa., where the pilot had the fuel tanks topped off. He didn't recall the pilot performing any weight-and-balance calculations, nor did he observe him using a checklist at any time.
The survivor told investigators that the pilot decided they'd proceed to 70N since it was closer to the other passenger's parents, who were picking up the group for dinner. He said that the pilot hadn't flown into 70N before. On the first attempt at landing, the airplane was too high, and the pilot executed a go-around. The pilot was able to land the second time.
After dinner, the group returned to 70N for the return flight to FRG. According to the survivor, the pilot was aware of the hill at the departure end of runway 23, since it was still light when they arrived and they could see the terrain. The survivor reported that the pilot didn't back-taxi to utilize the full length of the runway, but began the takeoff roll from an intersection. The hill, about 29 feet high, was located about 201 feet beyond the runway 23 departure end. Runway 23 was 2,478 feet long, including a 400-foot displaced threshold at the departure end, and had a 2.4% upslope.
The intersection of the taxiway and runway where the takeoff roll was initiated was about 200 feet from the approach end of runway 23.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's decision to take off on an uphill slope without utilizing the entire available runway, and his failure to abort the takeoff when he realized he wasn't going to lift off in time to clear the trees at the end of the runway.
A Piper PA-23-250 crashed in the water near Charlotte Amalie, U.S. Virgin Islands. One passenger survived, while the pilot and two other passengers didn't. Night visual meteorological conditions prevailed. The flight was en route from Christiansted in the Virgin Islands.
FAA radar data indicated the airplane climbed to 1,700 feet after departure. It held that altitude on a heading of 330 degrees for about two minutes. The airplane then entered a steady descent on the same approximate heading for the next 10 minutes until it leveled at 200 feet. The airplane cruised at 200 feet for the final 18 seconds of the flight until the radar contact was lost, approximately five miles from the destination airport.
The surviving passenger was interviewed by the US Coast Guard and FAA. She stated that the airplane flew progressively lower to "get under the weather." She said she could see lights on the shore near the destination airport and could see that it was raining. She recalled light turbulence. She next remembered the airplane "hitting a wall" and "seeing a flash" before the airplane filled with water. She said the pilot broke the window on his side of the airplane, and that she and the pilot got out through it. She didn't see any of the occupants of the airplane after that. When asked if she noticed anything unusual with the flight, or if the pilot provided any warning before striking the water, she said no, and indicated that everything was "normal."
Satellite images depicted clouds associated with a tropical storm that was developing to the southeast of the accident site. In the vicinity of the accident site, several towering cumulus-type clouds were evident.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's attempted VFR flight into marginal VFR conditions on a dark night over water and his failure to maintain sufficient altitude, which resulted in the airplane's controlled flight into water. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's inadequate preflight weather planning.
Peter Katz is editor and publisher of NTSB Reporter, an independent monthly update on aircraft accident investigations and other news concerning the National Transportation Safety Board. To subscribe, write to: NTSB Reporter, Subscription Dept., P.O. Box 831, White Plains, N.Y. 10602-0831.