HISTORY OF FLIGHT Use your browsers 'back' function to return to synopsisReturn to Query Page
On August 17, 1999, at an estimated time of 1615 Alaska daylight time, a wheel equipped Piper PA-28R-200 airplane, N56877, is presumed to have crashed near a remote area of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, about 90 miles northeast of Chitina, Alaska. The airplane is missing and the commercial certificated pilot, the sole occupant, is presumed to have sustained fatal injuries. The airplane was being operated as a flight of two airplanes on a visual flight rules (VFR) cross-country personal flight when the accident occurred. The airplane was operated by the pilot. A VFR flight plan was filed. The flight originated at Merrill Field, Anchorage, Alaska, about 1338.
The pilot of the accident airplane telephoned the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Kenai Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS) at 1258 on August 17, 1999. He filed a VFR flight plan, and added N6401U, a Mooney M-20C, as a second airplane to the flight plan, with the route of flight as Merrill Field to Gulkana, Alaska, to McCarthy, Alaska, to Burwash, Canada, to Whitehorse, Canada. The pilot indicated his estimated time en route was four hours, 15 minutes, and he had five hours, 20 minutes of fuel on board.
The pilot then inquired about weather conditions at Burwash, Whitehorse, McCarthy, and Gulkana. The Kenai AFSS specialist provided the following: Burwash, wind 300 at six knots; visibility 15 miles; few clouds at 900 feet, 2,500 feet scattered, ceiling 8,000 feet broken. Whitehorse, winds light; visibility, 10 miles in light rain; few clouds at 2,900 feet, ceiling, 5,900 feet overcast. McCarthy, wind calm; visibility, 30 miles; few clouds at 1,500 feet, 3,200 feet scattered, ceiling, 12,000 feet broken. Gulkana, wind 010 degrees at 12 knots, gusting to 18 knots; visibility, 50 miles; few clouds at 6,000 feet, 20,000 feet scattered.
The pilot opened his flight plan by radio with the Kenai AFSS at 1346. A Kenai AFSS specialist transmitted the flight plan to the Whitehorse Flight Service Station (FSS) at 1355. The Whitehorse FSS acknowledged the flight plan at 1359.
The pilot of N6401U reported that he departed from Merrill Field after the accident airplane, and planned to fly about three to four miles in trail. He had periodic radio contact with the pilot of the accident airplane, but he did not always have visual contact.
The pilot of the accident airplane made a position report over Gulkana, and a pilot weather report to the Kenai AFSS at 1446. He told the AFSS specialist that he had provided Canadian Customs personnel with an estimated time of arrival (ETA) of 1745. The pilot told the Kenai AFSS specialist, "...the weather coming down from Merrill Field to Gulkana, scattered clouds between 8,000 to 9,500 feet, and basically it's a pretty good clear ride."
The two airplanes proceeded toward McCarthy. The accident airplane pilot then reported to N6401U that he was proceeding to Glacier Creek, Alaska. He said mountains were on both sides of his route. The anticipated route of flight for the accident airplane would have been over the Chitistone River, Chitistone Pass, and then over the Russell Glacier into the White River drainage, or possibly fly a direct route to Burwash. The pilot of N6401U said that the last radio contact from the accident airplane pilot, about 1605, was when he said, "10 miles from the (Canadian) border."
The pilot of N6401U decided to fly over the Russell Glacier. The weather conditions for that area were scattered clouds about 6,500 feet msl, with a visibility of 50 miles. He could see a large weather front consisting of dark, low clouds in the area of Burwash, Canada. He decided to divert to Northway, Alaska, for additional fuel, and to get an update on the weather in Canada. He attempted to contact the accident airplane, but did not receive any further radio communication.
The pilot of N6401U requested a landing advisory from the Northway FSS specialist at 1703. After landing at Northway, he entered the FSS office and requested that the specialist cancel his portion (N6401U's portion of the flight of two), of the original flight plan filed by the accident airplane pilot. The Northway FSS was not the destination airport for the original flight plan. The FSS specialist said she could not find the flight plan in the FAA's system. The Northway FSS specialist did not inquire about the pilot's point of departure, or destination, and did not send a flight notification message to either facility. The pilot of N6401U said that both he, and the Northway FSS specialist thought the accident airplane pilot had landed, and that the accident airplane's pilot had canceled N56877's portion of the flight plan.
At 1727, the Northway FSS specialist transmitted a cancellation of N6401U's portion of the flight plan to the Whitehorse FSS. At 1730, the Northway FSS specialist provided a weather briefing to the pilot of N6401U for a flight to Beaver Creek, Canada. At 1737, the Whitehorse FSS specialist replied to Northway by stating there was no information on N6401U. The Whitehorse FSS specialist was not aware the two airplanes were no longer together.
At 1809, the pilot of N6401U departed Northway for Beaver Creek. The Northway FSS specialist transmitted his flight plan to Whitehorse at 1815, and it was acknowledged by the Whitehorse FSS at 1835. The pilot of N6401U did not tell Whitehorse FSS personnel that the two airplanes were no longer together. After landing in Beaver Creek about 1840 (1940 Pacific daylight time, PDT), the pilot of N6401U contacted Canadian Customs personnel to check on the possible arrival of the accident airplane. He was told there was no information in their system about the accident airplane. The pilot of N6401U spent the night in Beaver Creek.
On August 18, 1999, the pilot of N6401U departed Beaver Creek for Whitehorse. Upon his arrival about 1100 PDT, he did not see the accident airplane. He inquired with a fuel vendor if the accident airplane had been through Whitehorse, and was told "yes." The pilot inquired at the Whitehorse FSS about N56877, and was told there was no record of the airplane. The pilot of N6401U then flew to Watson Lake, Canada. The accident airplane was not there, and he then began to inquire from Watson Lake, and Whitehorse FSS personnel, whether the accident airplane had ever arrived at either location. After a ramp check was conducted at Whitehorse, he confirmed the accident airplane pilot had not arrived at either location, and had not contacted any U.S. or Canadian facility. Canadian search personnel were alerted of the overdue airplane about 2048 ADT.
During a telephone conversation with the acting manager of the Whitehorse FSS on January 25, 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator-in-charge (IIC) learned that on the accident date, the specialist on duty at the Whitehorse FSS acknowledged the original flight plan transmitted by the Kenai AFSS. The Whitehorse FSS specialist received no further communication from the Northway FSS after sending his response message at 1737, stating he had no information on N6401U. The Whitehorse specialist was aware the original flight plan for the two airplanes had an ETA of 1802 ADT. According to the Whitehorse FSS acting manager, when the ETA passed, the Whitehorse FSS specialist began to conduct a preliminary search, and would have declared the two airplanes overdue at 1902. When the Whitehorse FSS specialist received a new flight plan from the Northway FSS for N6401U at 1815, from Northway to Beaver Creek, he closed the original flight plan for the two airplanes, and accepted the new flight plan for N6401U.
The pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with airplane single-engine land, multiengine land, and instrument airplane ratings. He held a flight engineer certificate with a jet rating. The most recent second-class medical certificate was issued to the pilot on February 4, 1999, and contained the limitation that the pilot must wear lenses for distant vision, and possess glasses for near vision.
No personal flight records were located for the pilot and the aeronautical experience listed on page 3 of this report was obtained from a review of the airmen Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records on file in the Airman and Medical Records Center located in Oklahoma City. On the pilot's application for medical certificate, dated February 4, 1999, the pilot indicated that his total aeronautical experience consisted of about 7,800 hours, of which 200 were accrued in the previous 6 months.
All weather data times are provided in Alaska daylight time (ADT).
On August 17, 1999, at 1452, an Aviation Routine Weather Report (METAR) from McCarthy was reporting, in part: Wind, 020 degrees (true) at 5 knots; visibility, 30 statute miles; clouds and sky condition, 5,500 feet scattered, 8,000 feet broken; temperature, 64 degrees F; dew point, 53 degrees F; altimeter, 29.78 inHg. At 1650, McCarthy was reporting: Wind, calm; visibility, 30 statute miles; clouds and sky condition, 4,500 feet scattered, 7,000 feet broken; temperature, 64 degrees F; dew point, 55 degrees F; altimeter, 29.77 inHg.
At 1400, an Aviation Routine Weather Report (METAR) from Beaver Creek, Canada, was reporting, in part: Wind, 290 degrees (true) at 3 knots; visibility, 9 statute miles with fog in the vicinity; clouds and sky condition, few at 1,400 feet, 3,300 feet scattered, 3,600 feet overcast; temperature, 55 degrees F; dew point, 49 degrees F; altimeter, 29.91 inHg; remarks, last observation, the next observation at 0800 on August 18, 1999.
At 1600, an Aviation Routine Weather Report (METAR) from Burwash, Canada, was reporting, in part: Wind, calm; visibility, 5 statute miles in light rain showers and fog in the vicinity; clouds and sky condition, few at 800 feet, 2,500 feet scattered, 6,000 feet overcast; temperature, 53 degrees F; dew point, 51 degrees F; altimeter, 29.88 inHg.
A terminal area forecast for Burwash, issued at 1435, and valid from 1500 to 1700, was reporting, in part: Wind, variable at 3 knots; visibility, greater than 6 statute miles in light rain showers; clouds and sky condition, 3,000 feet scattered, 8,000 feet broken; temporary conditions, valid from 1500 to 1700, visibility 6 statute miles in light rain showers; clouds, 3,000 feet broken; remarks, the next forecast will be issued on August 18, 1999, at 0645.
At 1600, an Aviation Routine Weather Report (METAR) from Whitehorse, Canada, was reporting, in part: Wind, 150 degrees (true) at 8 knots; visibility, 40 statute miles; clouds and sky condition, 4,000 feet scattered, 7,000 feet broken; temperature, 61 degrees F; dew point, 45 degrees F; altimeter, 29.86 inHg.
A terminal area forecast for Whitehorse, issued at 1435, and valid from 1500 to 0300 on August 18, 1999, was reporting, in part: Wind, 150 degrees (true) at 3 knots; visibility, greater than 6 statute miles; clouds and sky condition, 3,000 feet scattered, 6,000 feet broken, 8,000 feet broken; temporary conditions, valid from 1500 to 0300, visibility greater than 6 statute miles in light rain showers; clouds, 3,000 feet broken; 30 percent probability from 1500 to 2100, visibility greater than 6 statute miles in light rain and thunderstorms; sky condition, 3,000 feet broken with cumulonimbus clouds; remarks, next forecast by 2100 (8/17/99).
Pilot reports of weather conditions in the area of Beaver Creek included the following: At 0845, a Cessna 172 en route from Tok, Alaska, to Beaver Creek at 4,000 feet msl reported the ground was visible until 20 miles west of Beaver Creek; airplane descended to 3,200 feet and encountered heavy rain showers; at 1,000 feet, 18 miles southeast of Beaver Creek, the airplane returned to Beaver Creek.
At 1056, a Bellanca reported 10 miles southeast of Beaver Creek for 20 miles; ceiling 200 to 300 feet overcast; visibility 1 1/2 to 3 miles in mist; then conditions improved gradually to 4,000 to 5,000 feet overcast; visibility, 15 miles plus; occasional light rain.
At 1119, a Cessna 180 reported while en route between Beaver Creek and Burwash; occasional ceilings 500 feet above ground level; occasional visibility, 3 to 8 miles with occasional heavy rain showers south of Pine Valley, via Burwash.
The Whitehorse FSS issued an advisory at 1224 which stated, in part: Three aircraft land at Beaver Creek due to IFR conditions southeast of Beaver Creek. VFR not recommended between Beaver Creek and Burwash.
The pilot filed a VFR flight plan with the Kenai AFSS. He indicated the destination was Whitehorse, Canada, and he contacted Canadian Customs to arrange for customs service.
A transcript of telephone and radio communications between N56877, and the Kenai AFSS is included in this report.
SEARCH AND RESCUE
Following notification of the overdue status, the Canadian Rescue Coordination Center, Victoria, and the 11th Rescue Coordination Center, Anchorage, initiated an incident mission on their respective sides of the international border on August 18, 1999, at 2048. An alert notice was issued on August 19, 1999, at 0132 ADT. On August 19, the incident was classified as a search mission at 0825. Canadian search personnel devoted 596.5 hours of search time. U.S. search personnel devoted 477.2 hours. The search effort was suspended on September 7, 1999. No emergency locator transmitter (ELT) signals were received in the area of the search.
The Northway FSS was not the facility of departure or destination. The facility did not have computer access to the flight plan data, contained in the FAA's model one computer system. The Northway FSS can send and receive messages on the FAA's Service B network.
The FAA's Flight Services Handbook 7110.10, Section 4, Flight Plan Handling, Paragraph 6-4-4, Flight Notification Message, states, in part: "c. If the pilot elects to close the flight plan with a station other than the AFSS/FSS designated as the tie-in facility by FAAO 7350.6, send the flight notification message with remarks to both stations...The designated tie-in AFSS/FSS shall assume both destination and search and rescue responsibility."
Paragraph 6-4-10, Flight Plan Closure, states, in part: "c. When a pilot closes a flight plan with a station that has not received a flight notification message, obtain as a minimum, the departure point, the flight planned destination point, and the station with which the flight plan was filed. 1. If the station receiving the closure is the tie-in station for the planned destination, transmit an arrival message to the departure station with the remark FPNO, and the departure point and destination identifiers. The departure station shall relay the arrival information to the station holding the flight notification message in the active file. 2. If the station receiving the closure message is not the destination tie-in station, transmit a closure message to the destination tie-in station, including the aircraft identification, the closure time, the departure point, and destination. Remarks are optional."
Since the location of the presumed fatal crash has not been determined, investigators with the NTSB and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, shared information concerning the missing airplane. Since the accident flight began in the United States, the NTSB initiated this report.