On December 3, 1998, at 1038 Alaska standard time, a Piper PA-31 airplane, N3542H, sustained substantial damage when it collided with terrain about 1,500 feet short of runway 05 at the Point Lay Long Range Radar Site, Point Lay, Alaska. The solo airline transport pilot received minor injuries. The airplane was operated by Cape Smythe Air Service, Inc., of Barrow, Alaska, as a 14 CFR Part 91 positioning flight for an on-demand air charter. The flight departed Kotzebue, Alaska, at 0919, for Point Lay. Night, instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) prevailed at the time of the accident, and the flight was operating on an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plan.

The pilot was in contact with the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center, and had been cleared for the NDB (nondirectional beacon) Runway 05 approach. Runway 05 is 3,519 feet long, and 80 feet wide. It is equipped with medium intensity runway lights (MIRL), and runway end identifier lights (REILS). The airport, which was in the process of transfer from the Air Force to the North Slope Borough, does not have visual approach slope indicator (VASI) lights. The airport is located about 1,000 feet inland from the shoreline of the Chuckchi Sea, which was frozen and covered with snow. The terrain surrounding Point Lay is essentially level and featureless.

The pilot of an airplane holding for departure clear of the approach end of runway 05 witnessed the accident. He told the NTSB investigator-in-charge (IIC) that the weather when he landed 20 minutes prior to the accident was a ceiling of 800 feet overcast, winds from the northeast, and visibility of 1 3/4 miles in blowing snow. He transmitted to the pilot of the accident airplane that there was low weather of 800 feet overcast, one mile visibility, and winds from the east at 26 knots.

The witness pilot told the IIC that he heard the accident airplane go over the NDB and then call outbound on the radio. Several minutes later he watched the airplane's lights go over the hangar on the south side of the runway at between 300 feet and 500 feet above the ground. He then observed the airplane circle to the left over the airport, and turn downwind. He lost sight of the airplane, and then saw it again, low, about one mile away, coming right at him. He described the airplane being misaligned for the runway. The lights of the airplane disappeared below a bluff (which is 18 feet above sea level) located between the runway and the shoreline, then reappeared. The witness transmitted on the radio to get out of there, then the lights again disappeared. He heard no more transmissions, and after about 10 minutes, the accident pilot walked up to the witness' airplane.

The NTSB IIC listened to a certified tape recording of the radio transmissions, and heard the witness pilot transmit on 118.9 MHz "get out of there, get out of there."

The accident pilot told the NTSB IIC during a telephone interview on December 4, 1998, and wrote in his pilot/operator report, that during the final segment of the NDB approach, he was beat around by the winds, saw the field about two miles out, and saw he was off course. He decided to circle to land. The pilot said it was snowing pretty hard, he always had the lights, and he was concentrating on the runway. The next thing he knew he was on the ground short of the runway. The pilot stated he believed he started his descent on final, and because of the darkness and snow covered, featureless terrain, it was not possible to differentiate the ground from the frozen ocean. The airplane was not accumulating ice, and the windows were clear. He said there were no mechanical problems with the airplane, and that it was running good.

The accident pilot said he had been to Point Lay on a couple of occasions, in the daytime, a couple of months earlier. He said he had executed the approach procedure before, but it may have been in visual conditions. He was hired by the company on February 9, 1998. He received his initial training in the Cessna 207. He was trained in the PA-31 in July 1998.

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