ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The single-engine Cessna that crashed near Nightmute earlier this month was equipped with special technology intended to prevent just such an accident.
But aviation experts say the pilot wasn't using the equipment properly when the Grant Aviation plane crashed into the tundra 80 miles west of Bethel April 3. Pilot Patrick Murphy and his six passengers survived the crash with broken bones and bruises. The plane was badly damaged.
''It's a disappointment that he didn't use it. We know it can prevent accidents,'' said John Hallinan, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration's Capstone safety program.
The Capstone program was launched in 1999. Under the program, $19,000 worth of special navigation equipment is being installed in each of up to 150 commercial airplanes operating in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The goal is to reduce aviation accidents in the region where there is no radar, the terrain is rough and bad weather can change quickly.
The Capstone equipment includes a computer screen that displays detailed moving maps, the location of other planes flying in the area and weather data. So far, the equipment has been installed in about 98 planes, Hallinan said.
The National Transportation Safety Board has not yet released its report on the probable cause of the Grant Aviation crash but investigators don't suspect a failure of the Capstone equipment, said Jim LaBelle, who heads the National Transportation Safety Board's Alaska office.
''The equipment is like anything else. It needs to be utilized properly,'' LaBelle said.
But Don Christensen, Grant Aviation's director of operations, said he does not fault Murphy for ignoring the computer when he encountered whiteout conditions.
''His primary duty is to see and avoid. He was looking out the window trying to avoid the terrain,'' Christensen said. ''The hill was snow-covered and completely white and the clouds were the same color. It was impossible to define the terrain.''
While the Capstone equipment is a powerful tool, it isn't the primary navigation equipment a pilot is legally required to use, Christensen said.
Murphy, who lives in Bethel, could not be reached for comment. There is no telephone listing for him.
Educators at the Aviation Technology school at the University of Alaska Anchorage interviewed Murphy about the crash. From the information he provided, a video was created showing how the Capstone equipment was used prior to the crash and how it should have been used to prevent a crash.
UAA has trained about 200 pilots in how to use the Capstone equipment, said Leonard Kirk, assistant director of UAA's Aviation Technology Division. The video is now being used as part of that training.
Murphy had been trained on the equipment last June.
According to the video, Murphy failed to set the altimeter on the Capstone equipment so that the screen could properly display his altitude.
In addition, he had turned off a feature on the equipment that would have indicated how close he was to the ground, Kirk said.
Used properly, the map displayed on the computer screen would have shown large areas of red when the plane was within 300 feet of the ground. In addition a small warning flag would have appeared in the upper left-hand corner of the screen.
Despite the accident, Kirk said the Capstone project has improved aviation safety in the region.
''The evidence is very clear that it's making a difference,'' Kirk said.
The University of Alaska Anchorage is analyzing the effectiveness of the program for the FAA and expects to produce its initial report sometime in December.
Hallinan likened the transition for pilots from standard navigation equipment to Capstone equipment to the transition from a typewriter to a computer.
''Nobody knew what this transition was going to look like,'' Hallinan said.
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