Survivors of Nuiqsut crash knew landing was flawed

Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Survivors of Monday's fatal plane crash in Nuiqsut felt the plane bump the runway then begin to climb, and for a moment they thought the pilot was going to pull them out of danger.

''I thought, 'He'll catch this.' '' said Greg Noble, 40, a federal petroleum engineer from Anchorage. The pilot even cracked a joke to the passenger on his right.

But when the twin-engine Piper 1040 Navajo kept banking left, ''I thought, 'Well, we're hitting; there's just no way out of it.' ''

Four people, including the pilot, were killed when the Cape Smythe Air commuter plane smashed into the tundra after apparently trying to land at Nuiqsut airport without lowering the landing gear.

Noble was one of six who survived, some with serious injuries.

Steve Hastings, a 48-year-old marine biologist from San Diego, was sitting on the right, next to the trailing edge of the wing. ''I thought, 'Oh, well, it's a go-around,' '' he said.

But that quickly changed.

''It was immediately apparent to me we were going down,'' he said.

Killed in the crash were pilot Lee Jason Ostendorf of Barrow and passengers Kenneth Leavitt, also of Barrow, and Chris Gibson and Gerald Kost, both of Anchorage.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to the North Slope on Tuesday to figure out what caused the plane to crash. Grant Thompson, president of Barrow-based Cape Smythe Air, declined to discuss any possible cause of the crash, saying the company will leave the investigation to the NTSB.

Eyewitnesses at the village airport said the plane touched down without its wheels in landing position.

The survivors said they knew the landing was botched.

''It sounded like the belly of the plane scraping,'' said Noble, who was sitting on the left side, opposite the wing.

''It jerked hard and pulled hard to the left and I thought (the pilot) miscued,'' said Ed Sanford Jr., a 29-year-old state firefighter. He was sitting in the rear of the plane, on the right.

The pilot, however, straightened the plane and pulled it up. As it climbed, the plane ''trembled like it was hitting turbulence,'' Sanford said. ''And then I saw a flash fire, a poof, coming from the (left) engine.''

Witnesses on the ground said the plane rose no higher than 100 feet before it hit the ground.

Hastings thinks he was knocked out briefly. He remembers opening his eyes and having trouble breathing. He tried to climb out a window, cutting his hands.

''I don't know how I got out, to be quite honest, because right now I can barely move without pain,'' Hastings said. He suffered two fractured lumbar vertebrae and bruises.

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