Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Ted Stevens Accident

It looks as if we’ll never know exactly what happened

NO CLEAR CONCLUSION. Investigators were unable to determine a cause in the crash of a de Havilland DHC-3T that struck mountainous terrain in Alaska.
The NTSB says cockpit recorders might have helped shed better light on exactly what happened in the accident in which former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens was among the victims. The NTSB conducted an extensive investigation in which it called on outside experts to examine the pilot’s medical records and autopsy results. The idea was to see if there was evidence that the pilot became incapacitated before the airplane crashed into mountainous terrain. Since the pilot had previously suffered an intracranial hemorrhage (ICH, or hemorrhagic stroke that involves bleeding from a blood vessel in the brain), pilot incapacitation would be a convenient explanation. It also would open the door to calls for the FAA to get tougher on pilots who have had medical issues, even though the accident pilot had completed the FAA’s mandatory two-year recovery period with nothing abnormal, and was subsequently issued full first- class medical certificates, not once, but twice.

While the NTSB stated that its investigation couldn’t determine precisely what happened in the final few minutes of the flight, it did determine that there was a lack of responsiveness on the part of the pilot before the airplane hit the terrain. It came to that conclusion even though it was clear the airplane had been put into a climbing left turn before impact. Although there were survivors who were interviewed by investigators, none were able to speak to the alertness—or incapacitation—of the pilot in the final moments.

The accident took place on August 9, 2010, at about 2:42 p.m. The single-engine turboprop de Havilland DHC-3T, which had floats, struck mountainous tree-covered terrain about 10 nm northeast of Aleknagik, Alaska. The airline transport pilot and four passengers (including Senator Stevens) received fatal injuries, and four passengers received serious injuries.

Although the airplane’s ELT activated, it came out of its mount during the crash, and the connection to the antenna broke. The signal couldn’t be received by satellites, which the NTSB said delayed evacuation of the survivors.

The airplane had two pilot seats and nine passenger seats. A bulkhead with an open center entryway separated the cockpit from the cabin. The airplane was operated by GCI Communication Corp. under Part 91.

About the time of the accident, marginal VFR was reported at Dillingham Airport about 18 nm south of the accident site. The passengers had been at a lodge owned by GCI, and they were being taken to a GCI fishing camp about 52 nm southeast for an afternoon of fishing.

The pilot had flown the accident airplane to the lodge earlier in the day. During the return flight to Dillingham, the pilot filed a PIREP with the Dillingham Flight Service Station at about 11:05 a.m. He reported ceilings at 500 feet, visibility of two to three miles in light rain, and “extremely irritating…continuous light chop” turbulence that he described as “kind of that shove-around type stuff rather than just bumps.” According to GCI lodge personnel, when the pilot returned to the lodge, he stated that the weather wasn’t conducive for a flight to the fishing camp because of turbulence and low ceilings.

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