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Poor visibility may have contributed to Cantwell plane crash

Jerzy Shedlock
Courtesy Alaska State Troopers

The National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday released its preliminary report on the plane crash that killed three people about 15 miles southwest of Cantwell nearly a week ago, and pilots in the area on the day of the crash reported low clouds and haze-restricted visibility. The deceased pilot, Dale Hemman, had only weeks before posted a viral, first-hand video of an engine-out, emergency landing that he walked away from last summer.

Five cameras were mounted on the plane during the recent crash, but investigators are uncertain whether any of the cameras were being used when the plane went down. And the twin-engine Beech Baron 95-B55 airplane was severely fragmented, said Clint Johnson, chief of Alaska’s NTSB office.

Investigators recovered all the cameras, which have been sent to a video lab in Washington, D.C. for review.

The preliminary report did not indicate the cause of the crash, or whether the severe weather conditions contributed to the plane’s reportedly abrupt descent into the Alaska wilderness.

Earlier this week, Alaska State Troopers identified the three who perished in the crash: pilot Dale Hemman, 61, of Steilacoom, Wash., and passengers John Ellenberg, 74, of Greenville, S.C, and Laurie Buckner, 52, of Simpsonville, S.C.

Hemman was the director of operations at Let’s Fly Alaska, a flight-seeing company that organizes squadrons in which visitors can fly their own airplanes across remote parts of Alaska and Canada. Group participants are required to have a valid pilot's license; the company also recommends 200 hours of flying experience.

On Friday, Hemman led a two groups, a total of 18 planes, which departed from Fairbanks International Airport at 10 a.m., destined for Homer, located to the south on the Kenai Peninsula. According to the report, the planes intended to follow the Windy and Broad passes.

Forty minutes after departing, the plane was destroyed when it crashed. At the time, instrument meteorological conditions -- weather conditions that force pilots to fly by primarily using instruments -- were reported in the area of the pass.

Weather at Fairbanks’ airport was reportedly much better. The closest weather-reporting facility near the crash site was the Healy River Airport, 42 miles north of the accident. The airport reported 70-degree weather and broken clouds at 7,000 feet.

The 18 planes were divided into two groups, a slow and a fast group. Each group had a separate leader. Hemman’s Beech Baron served as a leader for the entire group of planes, flying ahead of the pack and reporting weather conditions back to the groups.

After departing from the Fairbanks airport, neither of the two other leaders heard from Hemman again, Johnson said.

The leader of the fast group told the NTSB that Hemman took off 10 minutes ahead of his group. As the group approached Windy Pass, weather conditions deteriorated, with low clouds, haze and restricted visibility. Then he received a call from another plane in the area advising that the pass wasn’t open due to the poor conditions. The pilot opted to land his plane at the Healy River Airport. The slow group followed suit, according to the report.

The slow group leader waited about two hours on the ground then decided to check out weather conditions in the pass but ended up returning to the airport shortly thereafter.

State and federal officials arrived at the crash site in the afternoon. They observed the crash in an area of brush and tundra-covered terrain. Hemman’s twin aircraft crashed into the ground 500 feet from the Parks Highway that runs between Alaska's two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Fire from the crash spread to brush and scattered trees nearby but was extinguished.

Portions of the burned and fragmented plane were scattered along a debris path stretching 726 feet, according to the report. “Extensive fragmentation of the airplane” occurred, Johnson said.

The investigation is in its infancy, he said. The aircraft was equipped with two 300-horsepower  Continental Motor engines, both of which were recovered along with its frame. The pieces were shipped to a secure hangar in Wasilla earlier this week, Johnson said.  Officials from Beechcraft and Continental Motors are due in Alaska shortly to examine them.

Alongside NTSB investigators, the companies will “make absolutely sure there was no mechanical problems” with Hemman’s plane, Johnson said.

Information in the safety board’s preliminary report may change, however.

Only weeks before the crash, on May 17, Hemman posted a video of a plane crash in Fairbanks last summer that went viral. The engine of his plane "quit without warning about 200 feet above the ground,” just after takeoff. He wrote that he posted the video so other people could learn from it.

Hemman wrote that his flying credentials include “45 years of flying experience … retired military pilot (safety & instructor), former chief pilot for commercial 135 operations … and many years of aerial fire-fighting and other challenging flying jobs.”

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com