Ravn Investigating Cause Of St. Mary’s Crash

Photo courtesy Alaska State Troopers.
Photo courtesy Alaska State Troopers.

The NTSB is investigating the Era commuter plane that crashed and killed four people and injured six outside St. Mary’s.

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The government’s full report is many months away, but in the meantime, Era, now known as Ravn and others are digging into the cause of the crash.

Witnesses at the airport in St. Mary’s saw the Cessna 208 approaching at a dangerously low altitude and then flying past the runway before it crashed into a tundra ridge.  While the cause is still unknown, weather at the time included rain and fog, conditions that make flying challenging.

The NTSB is not saying what role the weather played or if the wings took on ice, but Ravn CEO Bob Hajdukovich believes the plane was flying within its envelop of safe operation.

“I can with a pretty high level of confidence say that icing was present the day of the accident, but certainly didn’t bring the airplane down,” Hajdukovich said. “We’re not treating this as a Cessna 208 tail stall or icing event.”

The 208 forms a big part of Ravn’s fleet, about a quarter of their aircraft. It’s a workhorse that Hajdukovich believes in. But the aircraft has some history with icing. The NTSB in 2006 released recommendations stating the 208 should not be flown in anything beyond light icing. That’s a recommendation, not a rule.

The manufacturer has made some changes. Cessna has swapped the deicing system on new aircraft, from the inflatable boots – that blow up and knock off ice, to an anti icing system, the TKS weeping wing.  This puts out small amounts of anti-ice fluid on the wing’s leading edge. This should prevent ice from ever forming. Hageland has not retrofitted any of its caravans.

And after the crash, that’s attracted the attention of lawyers, like Ladd Sanger, an attorney with Slack and Davis, a Dallas based firm that works in aviation law. He’s a pilot and has litigated several cases involving the 208.

“The caravan has a very bad track record in ice,” Sanger said. “There was a solution that was possible that would have likely prevented this crash, but unfortunately Cessna and Hageland chose not to employ it on this airplane or other that are operating in areas where icing is not only foreseeable but likely.”

Sanger has been in contact with attorneys working with crash victims.

Hajdukovich says that Cessna’s new anti-ice system is not a silver bullet. Ravn has done research into the TKS system. He says it’s expensive and somewhat problematic here.  He points to causes some corrosion to the wing, plus you have to have the liquid running constantly, which would require refills at small airfields.

“The caravan is very well suited for Bethel and can fly in ice, but you need tight controls in place to make sure you don’t get into heavy ice in the wrong condition with the wrong pilot experience, and you don’t want anything wrong with plane so you don’t want anything deferred,” Hajdukovich said. “There’s a lot of things you can do as a company to help tighten that envelop.”

Going forward, Ravn is sticking with the caravan. And Hajdukovich says the group is taking a hard look at safety.  He says there are some unrelated safety initiatives in play.  The company is looking at putting additional controls in place to elevate discussion of weather in the decision to fly or not.

“We hurt our friends, we hurt our customers, and we hurt ourselves and we want to gain that public trust back,” Hajdukovich said. “While we’re investigating what went wrong, if we’ll ever find out. it was a very traumatic event and we certainly don’t want to minimize the tragedy itself.”

“In terms of moving forward, we always use accidents like this as opportunities to try to find ways to minimize that risk in the future.”

And six weeks after the accident, Ravn’s 208s are moving people, groceries, and necessary supplies all over the delta.  The caravan flies to nearly 40 communities Ravn serves in the region.

No one knows with certainty what happened on Nov. 29. The NTSB says it could be a year before their final report is ready.

Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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