Skagway: Investigation fails to reveal cause of crash that killed local pilot

Posted: Sunday, October 20, 2002

The cause of the fatal air crash that took the life of Skagway Air pilot Joel Matthis has not been determined, says National Transportation Safety Board investigator Chris Erickson.

"There's the factual narrative that's out, and the final report, which is not out yet and comes from Washington, D.C. That summary or synopsis also contains the finding of probable cause," said Erickson.

Erickson did not know when the final report would be released, he said.

Matthis, the only one on board, took off from Skagway Jan. 15 on a 10-minute flight to Haines. He didn't arrive, and when he didn't, Skagway Air operations manager Mike O'Daniel flew the route in a fixed-wing aircraft to find him. Unable to locate the plane, O'Daniel returned to Skagway, notified Skagway Search and Rescue, and tried again in a helicopter. By that time, an emergency locator beacon signal was received in Haines. The wreckage was found about 300 feet above the water on the east side of the canal in steep forested terrain, the report says.

A postmortem examination by the Alaska State Medical Examiner revealed death was due to blunt force injuries, and a Feb. 27 toxicology report from the Federal Aviation Administration's Civil Aeromedical Institute found no traces of alcohol or drugs.

Erickson said the main points to consider in the recent report are that the pilot delayed take-off for 10 minutes because of the weather, and that the two weather observations points in Haines and Skagway posted different weather reports. That is not unusual, said Erickson, because they are in two different places, but the difference indicates the degree to which the weather can change along the canal.

The Skagway Automated Surface Observation System reported at 7:53 a.m., 10 miles visibility in light, freezing rain and mist; clouds and sky conditions at 2,000 feet scattered, at 2,900 feet scattered, and overcast at 5,000 feet.

At 8:21 a.m., Haines reported that visibility was four miles in light freezing rain and mist, 800 feet overcast, with unknown precipitation ending at 8:21 a.m., freezing rain beginning at 8:21 a.m., snow beginning at 7:55 a.m. and ending at 7:58 a.m.

The report stated "the pilot delayed his departure for about 10 minutes while he waited for weather and light conditions along the route to Haines to improve." Matthis then contacted the Juneau Automated Flight Service Station at 8:12 a.m. to file his flight plan.

"...Ah, yes Sir, good morning, Skagway for Haines and Juneau,; PA-032; four hours on the fuel; one hour en route; be one and three; pilot's name is Matthis; I do have the advisories," was Matthis' communication to the AFSS. His last contact was with Skagway Air to report he was at Paradise Valley, four miles south of Skagway.

The report notes that Matthis' "total aeronautical experience consisted of about 2,862 hours, of which about 1,400 were accrued in the accident airplane make and model. In the preceding 90 and 30 days prior to the accident, company records listed 95.8 and 17.8 hours respectively."

O'Daniel said when something as puzzling as this happens, he does everything he can to figure the cause.

"We took everything apart - more so than the NTSB does," said O'Daniel. "I took it (the engine) to Anchorage and it was completely rebuilt. I tried to look for things that no one else was willing to look at. You just try not to leave any stone unturned."

The NTSB did not take custody of the wreckage after its investigators surveyed the crash site, the report said.

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