Witnesses say plane touched runway with wheels up

Posted: Tuesday, September 19, 2000

NUIQSUT (AP) -- Residents who witnessed the fatal crash of a commuter plane in this North Slope village Monday said the plane touched the gravel runway without lowering its landing gear before it went down.

Four people were killed and six injured when the twin-engine Piper 1040, operated by Cape Smythe Air, crashed and burst into flames while trying to land at about 3 p.m. There were 10 people on board the plane.

The dead were identified by authorities as Chris Gibson and Gerald Kost, both of Anchorage, and pilot Leo ''Jason'' Ostendorf and Kenneth Leavitt, both of Barrow.

Nuiqsut, with about 500 residents, is 400 miles north of Fairbanks. The plane had stopped in Deadhorse and was to make a stop in Nuiqsut on its way to Barrow.

The aircraft appeared to touch the gravel runway at the edge of town, then regain altitude before banking and hitting the tundra, said Jim Allen, a 57-year-old heavy-equipment operator who was waiting with his mother to catch the plane to Barrow.

''The plane touched down with no wheels,'' Allen said. ''I saw him touch the ground, and I could even see the dust, but he didn't stay (down) long.''

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a Nuiqsut city employee who also was at the airstrip, said she heard someone yell that the plane was descending with its landing gear up.

''That's when I noticed it,'' Ahtuangaruak said. ''It attempted to touch down without the landing gear. Then it went back up, and as it started to climb, it put the landing gear down.''

Ahtuangaruak estimated the plane rose as high as 100 feet before diving into the ground and burst into flames.

Skies were partly cloudy and temperatures were in the mid-30s at the time of the crash.

Grant Thompson, president of Barrow-based Cape Smythe Air, said he knew of no problems with the aircraft. He described the crash as ''devastating.''

North Slope Borough Police Chief Paul Carr said his agency was advised a few minutes after 3 p.m. that the plane had crashed just west of the airstrip.

The injured were treated at the Nuiqsut clinic then flown to hospitals in Barrow, Fairbanks and Anchorage. Their injuries were serious -- broken bones and cuts -- but not life-threatening, Carr said.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board were expected to examine the wreckage of the plane Tuesday.

Monday's crash was the ninth accident involving a Cape Smythe aircraft in the past five years, and the 12th in the past decade. No one was killed in any of the other incidents.

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