Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
The National Transportation Safety Board says it’s not clear what caused the plane crash that killed former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and four others last August. Investigators say it’s likely the pilot was “temporarily unresponsive” in the moments before, but exactly why is unknown.
NTSB investigators say it was easier to rule out causes of the fatal plane crash than figure out exactly what went wrong. There are no signs of a mechanical problem, and while one surviving passenger reported white-out conditions, another said the plane remained below cloud-level the whole flight, and local reports didn’t reveal problems any worse than usual in southwest Alaska.
So just why pilot Terry Smith crashed the single engine float plane into a remote mountainside can’t be determined. The highly experienced 62-year-old pilot suffered a stroke four years earlier and recently retired, but medical factors or fatigue are only possibilities, not concrete answers. His son in law had just died in a plane crash, but investigators say he seemed to be handling the tragedy appropriately, and was in good spirits earlier that day.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman says investigators are at a loss despite pouring over records, and doing extensive interviews and multiple autopsies.
“The human will always, always be more complicated than a machine,” Hersman said.
Hersman says it’s rare to work this hard on an investigation and not come to a conclusion.
“In my seven years here I think we’ve had maybe one or two instances had a product that comes, a major product that comes where we don’t have tighter causal connection,” Herman said.
The NTSB recommends installing data or cockpit recorders, which aren’t mandatory on small planes. It also wants specific requirements for medical clearance after pilots have suffered strokes. And it wants better weather reporting by equipping planes with sensors that can send back information.
Former Senator Ted Stevens was a World War II pilot and leading national advocate for air safety; causing the NTSB chairman to remark that no one understood aviation in Alaska better.