Pilot, FAA share responsibility for fatal 2014 plane crash
Pilot error and an unwise certification by the Federal Aviation Administration are to blame for a fatal airplane crash near Atigun Pass in 2014.
The pilot, Forest Kirst, who was 57 at the time, had a "history of accidents, incidents, re-examinations, and checkride failures," according to the final accident report released by the National Transportation Safety Board last week.
On Aug. 24, 2014, Kirst was flying three passengers from New Brunswick, Canada, in the four-seat Ryan Navion A aircraft on a flightseeing tour in the Brooks Range. Kirst was the owner of Kirst Aviation, based in Fairbanks.
Near the entrance to a high mountain pass, the plane crashed on the "rising terrain."
All three passengers and the pilot sustained serious injuries, according to the report. Passenger Darrel Spencer, 66, died as a result of his injuries about a month after the crash.
"The pilot initially reported to first responders that he had encountered a severe downdraft while approaching the high mountain pass, which caused the airplane to lose altitude," the report stated.
However, investigators reviewing the crash site found the wind speed in the area was four to seven knots that day and there were "no indications of sudden downdrafts."
"When interviewed by investigators about two weeks after the accident, the pilot stated that the right front seat passenger was not wearing his shoulder harness and had slumped onto the flight controls and become unresponsive after taking a motion sickness drug," the report stated.
According to Kirst at that time, the other passengers on board had taken the same drug and were also "unresponsive." In speaking with the passengers, investigators said none of them recalled being unresponsive.
The front right passenger was Spencer, who later died. He was found wearing his harness when emergency responders arrived on scene, the report noted.
About two months after the crash, Kirst wrote in a statement to investigators that a "propeller blade had separated in flight." The report noted that one blade was missing and hadn't been recovered from the accident site. However, the passengers once again did not recall that happening. Investigators later found the cause of the propeller blade coming off was the impact of the crash itself; it had not happened while the plane was airborne.
"Postaccident examination of the airframe and engine found no evidence of pre-impact mechanical malfunctions or anomalies that would have precluded normal operation of the airplane," the report stated, meaning mechanical failure did not cause the crash.
Through the investigation, the NTSB found the pilot had taken off with the airplane overloaded. It was loaded over its maximum gross weight which "likely contributed to the accident because it reduced the margin of power available for climb" over the steep pass.
Additionally, it was found Kirst had not ascended soon enough, meaning he was still flying at too low an altitude to make it safely over the pass.
Following the crash, investigators reviewed FAA pilot and flight records which showed Kirst's history of unsafe flight and failed certification checks.
"Despite the pilot's history and concerns voiced by numerous FAA personnel during the certification process, the FAA issued a certificate to the pilot in 2012 to conduct commercial air transportation," making the FAA in part responsible for the crash, as well, the report noted.
"The agency has a legal obligation to utilize its authority for certification that is based on substantiated facts, not individual inspector opinions and innuendo," it concluded.
Kirst Aviation business licenses expired the year after the crash, according to state licensing records.