ANCHORAGE - The National Transportation Safety Board says the Federal Aviation Administration's lack of supervision over the flight tour industry in Southeast Alaska contributed to a crash in Misty Fiords National Monument that killed five people last summer.
The NTSB probable-cause report released this week, however, mostly faults the Taquan Air Service pilot.
"The NTSB has been very concerned about the air tour industry for some time," investigator Clint Johnson said. "We are accident investigators, and we look very, very closely at all aspects of the accident. ... In this case, we felt that there were some deficiencies and the recommendations hopefully will bridge that gap."
According to the report, most Ketchikan area air tour operators rely on weather reports informally shared over the radio. The nearest weather station is at the town's airport, 40 miles southwest of the crash area.
The report also said FAA inspectors typically observe the aircraft at the tour operators' business, inspect the maintenance facilities and conduct annual check rides.
But it said FAA inspectors rarely fly with operators during tours because the planes are usually full with paying customers. Also, inspectors do not conduct ground surveillance throughout their area to ensure pilots are flying appropriately for the weather.
The report said pilots with little experience flying in Southeast Alaska are ill-equipped to judge the often rapidly changing weather conditions.
The de Havilland Beaver floatplane crashed into a mountain near Rudyerd Bay July 24, 2007. The 56-year-old pilot, Joseph H. Campbell, and two retired married couples were killed in the crash.
Campbell had 25 years of commercial aviation experience when he was hired by Taquan to run flights during the tourist season, according to company officials at the time. But the NTSB report said Campbell had only seven hours of flight experience in Alaska at the time he was hired.
Taquan officials declined to comment Friday, saying the only person authorized to talk to reporters was not available.
The floatplane was the second of three flying over Misty Fiords National Monument. The report said the pilot of the first plane reported low clouds with rain and fog, prompting him to descend to 700 feet before finishing the tour as scheduled.
Five minutes behind Campbell's plane, the pilot of the third aircraft reported encountering a "wall of weather" blocking his flight route as he approached the crash area, according to the report. The pilot took an alternate route and ended the tour.
But Campbell's plane proceeded. The wreckage was ultimately discovered on a steep, tree-covered mountainside. A passenger's camera that was recovered from the site depicted worsening weather conditions with each snapshot.
In the report, the NTSB recommended installing weather cameras at points along heavily traveled air tour routes to and have the FAA observe flight tours aboard the planes and on the ground once a month during tour season. It also recommended developing a system to help pilots assess weather conditions and make in-flight decisions.
"We have 90 days to respond to the NTSB's recommendations and we will get back to them with an answer," FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer told the Anchorage Daily News in an e-mail. "In general however, we agree with the majority of their recommendations and will end up implementing them."