NTSB: Alaska lawmaker killed in midair crash did not have required medical certificate

A map shows the flight paths of two airplanes over Soldotna before they collided midair.
An image of the flight tracks for the two planes that collided midair near Soldotna on July 31. The the Piper PA-12 is in blue and the de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver is in green. (National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report)

A new report from the National Transportation Safety Board says the Alaska lawmaker piloting one of the planes in a fatal crash last month had been denied a required medical certificate eight years before because of vision problems.

NTSB says it’s too soon to say whether Rep. Gary Knopp’s reported vision issues played a role in the midair crash that killed him and six others on the Kenai Peninsula, but it’s part of the investigation. 

“Our medical team is jumping on it and digging right in,” said NTSB Alaska Chief Clint Johnson. “We have a lot of work to do.”

NTSB investigators released the information about the medical certification and what they know so far about the crash in a preliminary report Tuesday.

The report says Knopp, 63, was alone in his Piper PA-12 the morning of July 31 when he took off from the Soldotna airport, headed to Fairbanks. The report described the winds as calm, with 10-mile visibility.

Just to the northeast, a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver operated by High Adventure Air Charter left Longmere Lake at the same time, headed to a remote fishing location, the report says. 

Greg Bell, 57 and an owner of the company, piloted the Beaver. He had five passengers: 40-year-old fishing guide David Rogers and four South Carolina residents in their 20s, Caleb Hulsey, Heather Hulsey, Mackay Hulsey and Kirstin Wright.

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Minutes after takeoff, the planes collided midair nearly 3 miles northeast of the Soldotna airport around 8:30 a.m., the report said.

A witness told investigators that the Piper hit the left side of the Beaver, near the back of the plane. He said it appeared the Beaver’s left wing separated and “the airplane entered an uncontrolled, descending counterclockwise spiral before disappearing from view,” the report said. 

The witness did not see what happened to the Piper.

Six of those aboard the planes were confirmed dead at the scene, and one died on the way to the hospital, state troopers reported.

The NTSB report says investigators are working on a detailed examination of the wreckage. Johnson said they’ll also focus on mapping out what happened leading up to the crash, and whether the pilots could have seen each other.

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As part of the investigation, NTSB also looked at information on file with the FAA Civil Aeromedical Institute. Investigators learned that, according to those records, Knopp had his medical certificate revoked in June 2012 because of vision problems. The problems are not specified in the report.

The report said Knopp appealed the decision, and the denial was upheld a month later.

“The representative did not have a current medical, and had not had a current medical since 2012,” Johnson said.

FAA records show Knopp had a commercial pilot’s license and flight instructor certificate. Federal air regulations also require a medical certificate to fly.

The NTSB report also provided information about why officials initially misidentified the type of plane involved in the crash. The report says Knopp’s plane had a valid registration number on a card inside the aircraft. But, there was a different number on the plane’s exterior that Knopp had reserved, but was not valid for the Piper PA-12, the report said.

Johnson said it could be a year or more until the NTSB establishes a probable cause of the crash. It’s a major investigation, he said. 

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.

Tegan Hanlon is the digital managing editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447. Read more about Tegan here.

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