NTSB says 2 pilots in fatal Soldotna crash had ‘unobscured’ view of each other’s plane
Pilots involved in a fatal mid-air crash over Soldotna two years ago should have been able to see each other in the seconds before they crashed. That’s according to a new visibility study by the National Transportation Safety Board – part of a broader analysis released Wednesday into the crash that killed the five passengers and two pilots, Soldotna Rep. Gary Knopp and Greg Bell.
The council does not yet indicate a probable cause of the accident. But the new 11-page report zooms out on the many factors that could have contributed to it, such as visibility.
To help determine if Knopp and Bell would have seen each other before their planes collided, NTSB investigators reconstructed the view from each cockpit, gathering laser scans of the reassembled wreckage and photos taken by passengers.
They said Bell’s plane would likely have had a clear view of Knopp’s for the 53 seconds before the crash, while Knopp could have seen Bell’s for 28 seconds before the crash. The report states that the minimum time for a pilot to “detect another aircraft, judge a collision course and take evasive action is approximately 12.5 seconds”.
But NTSB regional chief Clint Johnson said even with this information, there’s still a lot investigators don’t know, including whether Knopp’s vision issues contributed to the crash. It is one of the factors that investigators are continuing to examine before releasing their factual analysis and probable cause of the crash next month.
The new report, Johnson said, only consolidates all of the facts of the fatal accident so far.
“This is a factual dump of everything they collected during this very thorough and exhaustive investigation,” he said.
This investigation has been going on for two years, since Knopp’s private plane and Bell’s charter plane collided over Soldotna on the morning of July 31, 2020, killing all on board.
The five passengers on the Bell plane were brothers MacKay and Caleb Hulsey and their partners, Kristin Wright and Heather Hulsey, all in their twenties and visiting from South Carolina, and their fishing guide, David Rogers, 40 , Kansas. They were flying with High Adventure Air Charters, a Soldotna tour company that Bell, 57, co-owned.
According to the NTSB, Bell and the group took off from Longmere Lake in Soldotna around 8:24 a.m. in a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, heading for a remote fishing spot on the west side of Cook Inlet.
Knopp took off around the same time from Soldotna Airport, just to the southwest. The 63-year-old state representative was alone in his Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser and traveling to Fairbanks.
The NTSB said the planes collided about three minutes after takeoff.
An earlier NTSB report noted Knopp’s vision problems. He said Knopp had been denied certification to fly years before the crash because of glaucoma in both eyes that limited his field of vision. This medical report was released with hundreds of pages of documents last year.
The new report does not include new information about Knopp’s vision.
It says the crash could have been avoided if both pilots had devices called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcasts – or ADS-B. It is a technology that allows pilots to detect where others are in the airspace.
And it is not currently required in the airspace above Soldotna. Knopp’s plane had ADS-B, while the High Adventure plane did not, according to the report.
The NTSB called on the Federal Aviation Administration to require ADS-B technology in all charter aircraft, and pointed to the Soldotna accident and another accident at Ketchikan to make its point.
The FAA, for its part, has said it requires ADS-B in most controlled airspace and strongly encourages all operators to use this technology. And he said implementing the recommendations could take years.
Earlier this year, the NTSB also recommended that the FAA require pilots to report where they are in the airspace when flying in certain radio frequency areas, called common traffic advisory frequencies, or CTAF. Highlighting the 2020 crash, he said overlapping frequencies in the same area could make this communication more difficult – for example, there are five different and overlapping CTAFs in the airspace above Soldotna.
Johnson said the factors in Wednesday’s report are all elements of the investigation that the safety board will take into account when it makes its final analysis of the crash and releases probable cause.
“The four-member board appointed by the president is the one that actually determines probable cause,” he said. “And you’ll see their resolve on that, hopefully within a month.”
The report comes as several lawsuits are pending from the families of the crash victims against Knopp’s estate and his widow, Helen Knopp. Two of those lawsuits, plus a countersuit by Helen Knopp, also target charter pilot Bell and High Adventure Air Charters.
The other owners of High Adventure Air Charters, Marc and Sandy Bell, are now trying to sell their business, according to their website. They did not immediately respond to a request for comment.