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Crashed aircraft safe, reliable if pilots follow procedures

Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- When a PenAir Cessna 208 Caravan crashed after takeoff from Dillingham last week, killing 10 people, it was the 27th time the aircraft was involved in a fatal accident in the nation, according to National Transportation Safety Board records.

Six of the fatal crashes were in Alaska, but until the Dillingham crash, the first since 1997. NTSB records also show investigations of 12 nonfatal accidents in Alaska, but none since 1998.

The Cessna 208 Caravan -- a work horse among commuter airlines -- has been sold since 1984. It is considered a safe, dependable aircraft, if safety guidelines are followed carefully.

The aircraft is powered with a turbine engine and is more complex to operate than similar size aircraft common to Alaska, according to Alaska aviators. The plane can be dangerous for pilots who do not rigorously adhere to a checklist of safety procedures, said Michael Buckland, University of Alaska Anchorage assistant professor of aviation technology in professional piloting.

''They have to be flown by the checklist,'' Buckland said. ''It's important they be flown with a methodical process. It's hard to do it by the seat of the pants.''

The cause of the Dillingham crash has not been determined.

The aircraft was not faulted for any of the previous Alaska fatal crashes.

''There isn't any problem with the safety of the aircraft,'' Buckland said.

''They're incredibly reliable,'' said John Miller, president of Take Flight Alaska, a pilot training school at Merrill Field in Anchorage.

Cessna 208s are particularly suited to Alaska flying.

They carry heavy loads, they're easily switched to passenger, cargo or combination configurations, they have few maintenance problems, and operating costs are fairly low, Miller said.

The aircraft have a distinctive high wing mounted on the top of the fuselage supported by single strut. With a high propeller and tall, fixed landing gear, they do well on Alaska's gravel runways.

''They stand up to Bush stresses,'' said Buckland.

Another reason for their popularity here: ''It's also harder and harder to get other airplanes,'' Buckland said.

Cessna offers four Caravan models, including one amphibian and one cargo version without windows. They range in length from 37 to 41.5 feet and have wing spans of just over 52 feet. According to the Cessna Web site, Federal Express has 300 Caravans in its fleet.

The aircraft is a turboprop, its propeller powered by a turbine engine rather than a reciprocating engine, like most cars. Turbines are more reliable than reciprocating engines unless they overheat, Buckland said, such as if they overheat during warm up before taking off.

The first Alaska fatal crash with a 208 was Nov. 1, 1985, when two people died and two were seriously injured in a Hermens Air flight at Bethel.

According to NTSB investigators, the plane's fuel selectors were in the ''off'' position and the aircraft lost power after takeoff. The pilot attempted to restart the engine, the aircraft stalled and then crashed. Investigators said a checklist was not followed.

On Dec. 21, 1990, a MarkAir Express flight departed from Cold Bay for a 15-minute flight to False Pass and crashed between two mountains. The NTSB said the probable cause of the crash was the pilot's improper decision to fly over mountainous terrain in adverse weather.

In the mid-1990s, the 208 was involved in three fatal Alaska crashes.

Buckland said pilots were making a transition from the Cessna 206, a smaller aircraft with a reciprocating engine, and the stretch model, the Cessna 207.

''They were taking too many pilots out of 207s and putting them into 208s,'' Buckland said.

After the deaths, ''They basically addressed it in training and that loss rate went way down,'' Buckland said.

On Nov. 26, 1996, an Arctic Transportation cargo flight crashed shortly after takeoff at Bethel, killing the pilot. Witnesses said the airplane made a left turn back toward the airport about 200 feet off the ground. The NTSB said the probable cause was the pilot's failure to maintain control of the airplane while maneuvering to reverse direction after encountering an ''undetermined anomaly.''

On April 10, 1997, five people died when a Hageland Aviation Services aircraft crashed into the frozen Arctic Ocean at Wainwright. The NTSB said the pilot used visual flight rules in weather conditions requiring instruments.

Seven months later, on Nov. 8, 1997, tragedy again struck a Hageland Aviation Services flight. A Cessna 208 crashed after takeoff from Barrow, killing the pilot and seven passengers. The pilot ordered fuel loaded in the left wing only, resulting in a weight imbalance. He also had not removed frost prior to takeoff.

PenAir President Orin Seybert told reporters last week that the company's plane out of Dillingham was not overloaded. Icing was not likely a factor. Temperatures were in the low to mid-30s, generally considered too high for ice to form.

Scott Erickson of the National Transportation Safety Board office in Anchorage said Friday eight investigators are studying the Dillingham crash, including eight from Washington, D.C. A factual narrative of the investigation could come in a few months but a determination of probable cause could take a year, Erickson said.



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