NTSB report: Fatal 1997 crash caused by ice, weight imbalance

Agency says oversight by company was also inadequate

Posted: Friday, February 25, 2000

ANCHORAGE - A plane crash off Barrow that killed eight people in 1997 was likely caused by improper fuel loading and ice buildup, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

In the final report on the crash released Wednesday, the agency also cited two other factors: inadequate management oversight by Hageland Aviation Services Inc., which operated the plane, and the pilot's efforts to keep his schedule.

Hageland President Don Tweto said he had not seen the report and had no comment. But after an inspection by the Federal Aviation Administration in 1997, the company said it was changing some procedures and policies and increasing management presence throughout the organization.

The fatal crash came just after 8 a.m. on Nov. 8, 1997, when the Cessna Caravan plunged into the Arctic Ocean just after takeoff, killing a family of seven and the pilot.

The victims were James Itta Sr., 49, his wife, Mary, 38, and their five young daughters - Laura, Andrea, Irene, Esther, and Elizabeth, along with pilot Tom Knight, 41. The Ittas were taking the body of 46-year-old Norman Matoomealook, Mary Itta's brother, to Wainwright for burial.

The pilot managed to transmit ``Mayday, mayday'' before the plane plummeted into 21 feet of water about 200 yards from shore.

Jim LaBelle, who heads the NTSB office in Alaska, says the crash investigation took longer than normal.

``We needed to look at everything because there were no obvious indicators from the beginning what precipitated the accident,'' LaBelle said.

The FAA, Cessna, and Pratt & Whitney, which manufactured the plane's engine, also were involved in the investigation.

While the NTSB examined the wreckage, Cessna conducted test flights on the weight and balance limits of the same model plane.

``All this stuff adds up. We had to coordinate with the manufacturers and other parties who are assisting,'' LaBelle said.

A staff shortage at the NTSB's Washington, D.C., headquarters also delayed the report, he said. While investigators do the legwork, the final determination on the probable cause of a crash must come from the safety board.

Pilot Tom Knight was described by other employees as being in a hurry to depart on time on the morning of the crash.

Witnesses told crash investigators heavy frost had formed on vehicles and aircraft that morning. Frost or ice can add weight to the plane. In addition, the rough surface of frost disrupts air flow over the wing and reduces the plane's lift.

Company employees said they did not see Knight remove frost or ice from the plane.

In addition, the pilot instructed a Hageland employee that the left wing fuel tank should be ``topped off.'' That created a left-wing fuel imbalance of between 450 and 991 pounds, according to the report.

Soon after the plane left the runway, it made a turn to the left, then went into a stall and spin before hitting the water.

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