Two Anchorage commercial pilots flying in a holding pattern in stormy weather outside Dillingham failed to maintain sufficient altitude before their plane crashed into the side of a mountain in 2013, a report by federal investigators has concluded.
The National Transportation Safety Board report issued Monday also faulted the air traffic controller who did not notice the plane's descent to a dangerous, low altitude.
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The Alaska Central Express Air Cargo crashed March, 8, 2013, about 20 miles northeast of Dillingham in southwest Alaska, killing pilot Jeff Day, 38, and co-pilot Neil Jensen, 21.
Alaska Central Express flight 51 took off at 7:50 a.m. from King Salmon on its way to Dillingham. At 8:03, as the plane was flying at 5,900 feet about 30 miles southeast of Dillingham, the pilot asked the air traffic controller in Anchorage for clearance to approach the Dillingham runway and was told to "maintain at or above 2,000 feet" until on a "published segment of the approach." The pilot repeated the instruction.
Six minutes later, however, the pilot asked to enter a holding pattern. The crew wanted to check on runway conditions, he said.
The plane had already descended to 2,200 feet. Mountains near Dillingham dictate that the safe altitude for circling is 5,400 feet — something the pilots should have known, according to investigators.
"The flight crewmember's acceptance of what they believed to be a clearance to 2,000 feet, their descent to that altitude, and their initiation of a hold at that altitude indicates a lack of awareness of the information contained on the published procedure," investigators said.
The airplane crashed at 8: 15 a.m. at 1,996 feet on a mountainside.
Investigators concluded the air traffic controller's instructions were ambiguous, and that the OK for the descent to 2,000 feet was only for one segment of the approach to the runway. The controller didn't monitor the flight's progress and didn't warn the pilot when the plane began flying in a holding pattern at the lower altitude.
The controller's display warned that the plane was too low, but the controller told investigators he wasn't aware of the warnings. It was unclear why, according to the investigation.
Day was hired by ACE Air Cargo in July 2008 and had accumulated 5,470 hours in the model. Jensen was hired four months before the crash and had accumulated 470 flight hours.
The plane carried equipment that could provide warnings of flying too low but the crew could shut the equipment off.