Widow claims aircraft upgrades played a role in husband's death

The wreckage of a de Havilland Otter that crashed Sept. 15, 2015, near Iliamna. Three people died, including a man whose widow is now suing Rainbow King Lodge and companies that played a role in modifying the airplane.
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) The widow of a Pennsylvania dentist has sued Rainbow King Lodge and the provider of popular aircraft modifications, claiming they are responsible for killing her husband in a 2015 plane crash.

The wrongful death suit targets the Iliamna fishing lodge that operated a pre-dawn flight that killed three people. It also names three aviation companies that played a role in modifying the deHavilland Otter that crashed on takeoff. Survivors claim the upgrades “changed the center of gravity, making the center of gravity too far aft and contributing to or causing a stall and or loss of control.”

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that a pilot working for the lodge had failed to weigh the cargo on board before leaving in the early morning darkness with nine passengers.

The plane was carrying too much weight and stalled, investigators concluded. “When asked how he calculated the weight and balance for the accident airplane before departure, the pilot said he ‘guesstimated’ it.”

Jolyn Specter, whose husband James Specter was killed, filed the lawsuit Thursday in Anchorage federal court alongside injured passenger David W. Wood. They say there was more to the accident than human error.

The lawsuit claims that modifications made to the plane in 2014, replacing the piston engine with a turbine engine and adding a so-called “Short Takeoff and Landing” (STOL) kit, also contributed to the crash.

NTSB Alaska chief Clint Johnson said that STOL kits are fairly common modifications to Otters, Cessna 185s and Super Cubs in Alaska. In his 20 years investigating accidents here, however, he could not immediately recall the modification proving to be a factor in a crash.

The plaintiffs in the wrongful death suit cite a January 2016 “airworthiness directive” from Transport Canada following the crash of a different Otter that had similar modifications.

Wood was seriously injured in the Alaska crash. Specter, of Shavertown, Penn., was 79 when he died. Also killed were 70-year-old James P. Fletcher of Clovis, Calif., and 80-year-old Tony W. DeGroot of Hanford, Calif.

An attorney for Texas Turbine Conversions, which modified the plane in 2014, declined to comment today. The suit also names Recon Air, a third-party installation facility, and Stolairus Aviation, which created the STOL modification kit.

A man who answered the phone today at Rainbow Creek Lodge said he was unaware of the federal lawsuit and had no immediate comment.

A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration could not immediately say how many aircraft have received STOL modifications in Alaska.