Parents: Lax aviation rules led to son's death

Posted: Monday, February 06, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Like scores of visitors to Alaska, Mark Schroeder trusted his life to the pilot of an outdoor adventure company's small transport plane. And for that, his parents say, the South African teen met his death in an icy lake.

"Tourists are enamored with the idea of seeing Alaska and they put their safety in the hands of small-time operators who are not under close scrutiny," said his mother, Lesley Schroeder McLean.

Federal Aviation Administration rules are far more lenient on lodge owners, hunting guides and others who provide flights as part of an excursion package than they are on commercial carriers, said McLean and her husband, Chris, a former Alaska bush pilot and registered owner of the Maule M7-235 involved in the July 2005 crash.

Stricter oversight on the pilot entrusted to watch their aircraft, the McLeans said, would have revealed routine maintenance was overdue and imposed greater penalties for carrying too many passengers and exceeding weight limitations.

Compounding the dilemma, according to the McLeans, the state is reluctant to pursue criminal charges against pilots whose negligence results in fatal crashes.

As a result, pilots know they can "get away with murder" in a state noted for its remote wilderness destinations, said the couple, who live in Durban, South Africa.

"If somebody operated a tour bus with knowingly overloaded conditions and bad brakes, and killed one of the passengers, they'd be charged," said Chris McLean, Schroeder's stepfather. "The problem with aviation is that it's Alaska's golden child. No one wants to mess with aviation and they leave it to the FAA."

Mark Morones, a spokesman for the state Department of Law, said the same standards are applied to both vehicle and aviation crashes, although officials couldn't recall any criminal prosecutions involving a fatal plane crash. Prosecutors are evaluating the Schroeder case.

"Our state prosecutors seriously evaluate all criminal investigations referred to their offices, particularly when a death has occurred," Morones said. However, decisions to prosecute "ultimately comes down to whether there is enough admissible evidence that, at trial, we can prove to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the individual charged committed a crime."

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FAA officials say state prosecutions in plane crashes are uncommon nationwide. There's little the federal agency itself can do against pilots operating under the most lenient of three regulatory categories. Pilots operating under Part 91 _ or general aviation _ rules can lose their operators license, but they can apply to get them back a year later.

That was the only punitive action the FAA could apply to Anchorage pilot Kurt Stenehjem. A longtime associate of the McLeans, Stenehjem was using their plane to carry clients of his business, Glacier Air Adventures. Schroeder was helping Stenehjem out for the summer and planned to return to Durban for his last year of high school, where he was captain of the rugby team.

The two were among five people on board the Maule when it crashed in clear, calm weather into Johnstone Lake on the Kenai Peninsula. The single-engine floatplane bellyflopped as it began landing near Stenehjem's commercial lodge.

Stenehjem, 54, and three passengers survived with minor injuries after they swam to icebergs as the plane sank. But Schroeder, who was not wearing a life vest, slipped into the glacier-fed lake. His body has not been recovered.

The probable cause of the crash was "the pilot's failure to maintain minimum airspeed during final approach, which resulted in an inadvertent stall," the National Transportation Safety Board concluded in a Jan. 31 report.

After conducting its own investigation, the FAA issued a rare emergency revocation of Stenehjem's commercial pilot certificate. Among factors cited, the plane was overloaded, had not undergone an annual inspection and was equipped with only four seats even though there were five people on board. Schroeder had sat in the back where gear was stored.

Chris McLean said he repeatedly warned Stenehjem against putting four passengers in the plane because it would disrupt the plane's balance. McLean also said he believed the plane was being maintained on schedule.

The FAA said Stenehjem's lack of care and judgment justified immediate action.

"Your conduct before and during this flight reveals at best an ineptitude and inability to execute very basic responsibilities of airmanship. At worst it documents an intentional disregard of the Federal Aviation Regulations and very basic values of safety qualified pilots hold," the agency wrote.

Emergency revocations, which shortcut the usual due process, are rare: Stenehjem's was one of three issued last year, according to John Duncan, manager of the flight standards division in the FAA's Alaska region.

"Thankfully, not many events reach the threshold that could cause that to happen," he said.

Stenehjem said Friday he disagreed with some of the FAA's findings, but decided "it was best to work for a resolution and not argue about the details." He hasn't decided whether he will reapply for his license.

"This has been the most profound and tragic event in my life." he said. "You can't go through something like this without having it turn your entire world upside down."

Troopers, meanwhile, have forwarded their case to the Kenai district attorney for consideration of charges that potentially could include criminally negligent homicide.

The FAA lacks authority to issue criminal penalties, although it works with authorities whenever possible, Duncan said. Its role is limited to enforcing regulations only.

Large commercial carriers and smaller airlines with paying passengers are held to stringent standards, Duncan said. Up to 80 FAA inspectors are assigned to monitor operators and aircraft maintenance. Serious violations can result in hefty fines and loss of an air carrier certificate.

There are no similar measures for lodge operators and other businesses operating under Part 91 regulations _ a situation more prevalent in wide-open states like Alaska and Montana, Duncan said. Although yearly aircraft inspections are required, violations go largely undetected unless the agency happens upon them following an accident or complaint.

The FAA does target pilots in other ways, including spot checks at maintenance sites and voluntary safety programs. But the agency doesn't have the resources to keep an eye on everyone, Duncan said.

"In general the rules that apply, particularly with general aviation, are based on voluntary compliance and the aviation community does a great job," Duncan said.

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