ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The National Transportation Safety Board has concluded that the August crash of a small plane that killed three people returning to a remote lodge on the Alaska Peninsula was caused by the pilot's decision to fly into a mountain pass in marginal weather.
Clouds closed in on pilot Joe Maxey, and he crashed his Cessna 180 into a steep slope about 150 feet below the pass, according to an NTSB final report made public on the agency's Web site.
''A decision to turn around sooner would have benefited this flight,'' NTSB investigator Scott Erickson said Tuesday.
''This is not an accident caused by weather,'' Jerry Paterson, of the Federal Aviation Administration's flight standards division, said when told of the NTSB's description of the flight. ''It's caused by decision-making.''
The crash occurred about 400 miles southwest of Anchorage. Maxey, 61, of Anchorage, and a tourist from Wyoming were killed on impact. Another passenger died on the way to a clinic.
On Aug. 23, Maxey, co-founder of Painter Creek Lodge south of Pilot Point, and the pilot of a second plane had flown guests of the lodge to a creek near Amber Bay, on the Peninsula's southeast coast, to fish in Aniakchak National Preserve.
At about 5:15 p.m., each took off from the beach with passengers and headed for the lodge, 20 miles to the north across 3,000-foot-plus mountains in the Aleutian range.
The pilots could see low clouds obscuring the peaks, and they talked over the radio about taking an alternate route back, NTSB investigators said. They chose West Creek Pass, a longer route but one through a lower pass that would provide more space beneath the clouds.
The pilot of the second aircraft, identified in the report only as Jeff, led the way as the planes started climbing toward the 3,000-foot level. Sometime after taking off, however, Maxey radioed the second pilot that the most direct way through the mountains seemed open and he headed for that pass, says the report.
The second pilot, following Maxey by about one-third mile, soon ''observed a solid layer of low clouds obscuring the pass, and he began to lose sight of the first airplane in clouds,'' the NTSB report says. After he saw Maxey's plane enveloped, the second pilot began reversing course.
Maxey radioed from up ahead: ''Jeff, you might want to turn around,'' according to the report. The other pilot said he already was into his turn, and asked if Maxey also was going to change direction.
''The first pilot replied by stating, Well, I'm kind of committed now,''' the NTSB says. That was the last contact with Maxey.
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