Pilot shut off one engine before fatal plane crash near Haines

The surviving passenger of a fatal plane crash near Haines told investigators that the pilot purposely stopped one engine to demonstrate how to re-start it in flight. That is one detail in a preliminary report released by the National Transportation Safety Board this week. The crash killed two people and injured another.

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David Kunat and Chan Valentine of Juneau and Stanley Quoc Nguyen of California were flying from Juneau to Haines on Saturday, May 27. NTSB Alaska chief Clint Johnson says the trio were taking pilot Kunat’s twin-engine Piper PA-30 to the Haines Beer Fest.

But at about 11 a.m., about 10 miles away from Haines, something went wrong.  The plane went down on a rocky beach near the Glacier Point airstrip. Kunat and Nguyen, who was also a pilot, were killed. Valentine was sitting in the back of the plane, and he survived, but sustained serious injuries.

Johnson says an NTSB investigator interviewed Valentine in the hospital. During that interview, they learned this important detail:

“Unfortunately it does sound like one engine, the right engine, was shut down intentionally,” Johnson said. “And they were unable to restart it, which ultimately led to the accident.”

The NTSB’s preliminary report summarized Valentine’s account: that about 20 minutes into the flight, Kunat intentionally shut down the right engine to demonstrate how to restart it in-flight. But it didn’t work.

“It’s my understanding that they tried to restart it using the battery power but they weren’t able to restart it using the battery,” Johnson said. “They then tried to air-start it, which means they climbed to an altitude and dove the airplane to try and get the air speed up to be able to windmill the prop. Unfortunately that did not work as well.”

The NTSB report said that after multiple failed attempts to restart the engine, Kunat decided to land at the Glacier Point gravel airstrip. Valentine told the NTSB that Kunat wanted to use a battery booster to start the right engine.

Before landing, Valentine said Kunat made a low-level pass to check the conditions at the airstrip. That was Valentine’s last memory of the flight.

A witness across the Lynn Canal was watching the plane through binoculars. The NTSB report said the witness saw the plane reach the end of the airstrip, descend, turn right, and then crash into the shoreline. The witness said the plane hit the shore at a right wing-down, nose-down angle. The NTSB recovered the wrecked plane, and said the damage is consistent with that angle of impact.

The Chilkat Valley News reported that the witness, Yakutat resident Steve Dice, and his friends, helped save Valentine’s life. After Dice saw the plane go down, he and Haines residents Tom, Patricia and Kirby Faverty took a boat from their cabin to the crash site. They saw Valentine was alive but trapped in the plane. They ultimately were able to keep the plane from going under the rising water by attaching it to a backhoe from a nearby tourism camp.

The NTSB report confirmed that Dice and the Favertys kept the plane in shallow water until emergency responders arrived. Valentine was eventually taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. A spokesperson there said the crash survivor is in ‘satisfactory’ condition.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions. Johnson, with the NTSB, said he does not know why Kunat would try to demonstrate an in-air engine restart. And there’s still the question of why the engine wouldn’t restart after it was turned off.

“Investigators are going to be working very closely with the airframe manufacturer (Piper), the engine manufacturer (Lycoming), looking at performance issues, trying to figure out more why they weren’t able to restart the engine,” Johnson said.

The NTSB will also conduct a more in-depth interview with Valentine once his health is better.

Johnson said it will take nine months to a year to compile the final report, which will include a probable cause.

Emily Files is a reporter at KHNS in Haines.

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