NTSB: Pilot In Fatal Crash Wasn't Experienced With Saab 2000, Landed Amid Unfavorable Winds

Nov 15, 2019

A crane hoists PenAir's Saab 2000 airplane on Oct. 18. One person was killed and multiple people were injured when the plane went off the runway while attempting to land the evening before.
Credit Laura Kraegel/KUCB

The PenAir flight that crashed at Unalaska's airport last month, killing one passenger, landed amid unfavorable, shifting winds, according to an initial federal report released Friday.

It was also captained by a pilot with relatively little experience at the controls of the Saab 2000 plane he was flying, the report said.

The captain told National Transportation Safety Board investigators that he had spent about 14,000 hours flying in Dash 8s, another smaller, slower plane that's also used by RavnAir Group, PenAir's parent company. But he had just 101 hours in a Saab 2000, he said.

The first officer's level of experience was similar: 1,450 total flight hours, of which 147 were in a Saab 2000.

The flight from Anchorage had 42 people onboard when it flew off the end of the runway, with passengers saying that it felt like the plane didn't have brakes. A 38-year-old Washington man, David Oltman, was killed in the accident, and about 10 more were injured.

It was the first fatal passenger accident this year among all U.S. airlines, which are more stringently regulated than flight services that operate in Alaska's smaller rural communities.

Afterward, Alaska pilots and the family that owned PenAir before it was bought out of bankruptcy last year questioned the pilot's decision to land with what weather data suggested was a strong tailwind, contradicting standard guidance for pilots.

Friday's report adds new weight to those questions.

As the plane flew its second approach to the runway after an aborted landing, a local weather observer reported winds out of the northwest at 28 miles an hour. The Saab 2000 landed flying roughly the same direction — on what's known as the runway's "13" orientation, rather than the other direction, known as runway "31."

"Transmissions between the weather observer and another airplane indicated that winds favored runway 31 but could shift back to runway 13," the report said.

The runway, with a mountain on one side and water at both ends, is shorter than normal and notoriously difficult to land on. Under PenAir's previous ownership, company guidelines said pilots should have at least 300 hours of experience in the Saab 2000 plane the airline uses before they could captain a flight to the airport.

Alaska Airlines marketed the flight and sold tickets, but the operator was PenAir, which was purchased out of bankruptcy last year. PenAir's new owner is RavnAir Group, which is owned by a New York-based private equity firm and also flies routes from Anchorage to Fairbanks and rural western Alaska.

RavnAir Group has stopped flying the Saab 2000 into Unalaska, and regularly scheduled air service with the Dash 8 resumed Thursday, Nov. 14, nearly a month after the crash.

RavnAir and other companies have been flying charter service in and out of the community. But residents and people who work in the Port of Dutch Harbor’s major commercial fishing industry have complained of steep prices, logistical problems, and delays.

City officials are now asking whether they can take legal action against Alaska Airlines and Ravn.

The National Transportation Safety Board's full investigation into the cause of the crash is expected to take as long as one year.

This story will be updated.