Pilot Nigel Cook lied to get a job at Coastal Helicopters, then died trying to keep it.
The National Transportation Safety Board blames Cook, as well as the weather, the helicopter company and the Federal Aviation Administration for the crash that killed seven people on Herbert Glacier on June 9, 1999.
In a final report released Monday, the NTSB finds the probable cause of the crash was Cook's continued flight into overcast conditions where it was difficult to tell the ground from the sky. Cook presumably became disoriented and lost control of the helicopter, which flew into the glacier at 130 knots, killing him and six passengers on a flightseeing tour.
Coastal Helicopters pressured Cook to fly into marginal weather, the report concludes. A week before the crash Cook called two acquaintances, both owners of helicopter companies. Both told the NTSB investigator Cook was dissatisfied with the training he'd received in Juneau and felt pressured to fly in weather he considered unsafe.
When asked about the NTSB conclusions Monday, Dot Wilson at Coastal Helicopters said, ``We're just not in a position where we can comment on that right now.''
Coastal Helicopters' attorney, Michael Nave of Anchorage, did not return Empire calls.
Coastal Helicopters had reason to believe Cook was more experienced than he was. Cook claimed he had flown helicopters for 891 hours and planes for 600 hours when he applied for the pilot's job, according to the NTSB report. His actual flight records showed only 612 hours flying helicopters and 500 hours in ultralights. Ultralights are small, recreational aircraft that do not require or count toward airworthiness certification, the NTSB said.
Finding discrepancies in self-reported flight hours is not unusual.
``Certainly in the past we have discovered them before. Sometimes they're very innocuous and benign and sometimes they're intentional,'' said Jim LaBelle, chief of the NTSB for Alaska.
In Cook's case, his documented hours were beyond the 500 required by the FAA, but well below the 1,500 Coastal Helicopters said was a minimum for its pilots.
``Oftentimes operators will have additional requirements,'' LaBelle said. ``Their insurance requires higher minimums. That's usually what drives the flight hours.''
Cook also had no experience relying on the aircraft instruments, which were his only point of reference in the whiteout conditions he flew into on the glacier. The FAA requires commercial helicopter pilots to demonstrate that, in an emergency, they can fly solely with instruments that tell the speed, whether they are climbing or descending, and whether the craft is level. But that requirement was left out of training manuals the FAA approved for several flightseeing companies in Juneau and Cook did not receive the emergency instrument training.
``That information should have been brought forth and included into the training manual and it was not,'' LaBelle said. ``The company, just a generic operator, has no way of knowing what's in the FAA handbook if it's not included in the manuals.''
Another NTSB report points out the same problem with a lack of FAA-required instrument training in a three-helicopter crash that occurred Sept. 10, 1999, on the Herbert Glacier under similar disorienting conditions. Since then TEMSCO, which ran the three helicopters, has added training for all its pilots in how to fly based on the instruments alone and how to react to disorienting conditions on the glaciers.
The Anchorage NTSB office is reviewing possible safety recommendations based on both the Coastal and TEMSCO crashes, LaBelle said.
``There's been some changes and there continue to be,'' said Kent Adams, assistant division manager for flight standards in Alaska. ``We're always very responsive to anything the safety board might recommend and if there's anything else we'll take action to respond to those things.''
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