A small plane in which a man died and a woman was injured early Sunday was making a second landing approach to the Big Lake Airport when it crashed, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB’s preliminary report on the crash, which occurred shortly after 2:15 a.m. Sunday, was released Friday. The pilot, 50-year-old Christopher Cyphers, was killed when Alaska State Troopers initially said the Piper Comanche crashed into power lines and trees on takeoff from Big Lake.
According to the report, Cyphers took off from Merrill Field in Anchorage just after 2 a.m. Sunday. Family members said he would have been flying home to Big Lake after a visit to Anchorage, where he was seen at a local bar shortly before departure.
“Various bar patrons reported that both the accident pilot, and his female passenger, left the bar about (1:19 a.m.) on August 10,” NTSB officials wrote. “Archived surveillance video, which was provided to the (NTSB), confirmed the witnesses’ accounts.”
The NTSB’s chief Alaska investigator, Clint Johnson, says authorities aren’t jumping to conclusions about whether Cyphers was intoxicated. While an autopsy is being performed on Cyphers, as standard procedure for any pilot killed in a U.S. plane crash, Johnson says both private and commercial pilots are governed by FAA regulations barring drinking for eight hours from “bottle to throttle” before a flight.
“The bar owner provided the security tapes, but we don’t know what he’s drinking,” Johnson said. “From our standpoint, what we’re ultimately looking at are the results of the toxicology reports.”
Archived radar data from the Federal Aviation Administration provides a loose overview of the Comanche’s flight. Data from a GPS receiver recovered at the crash site matches the radar profile, also indicating that the plane began to climb just as it passed the runway’s threshold on its first approach.
“After departure, the radar track proceeded north, towards the Big Lake Airport,” NTSB officials wrote. “As the track approached the Big Lake Airport, it turned west, and appeared to pass over the airport. After passing over the airport in a westerly direction, the track turns 180 degrees back to the airport. The track subsequently disappeared about the time of the accident.”
Johnson confirms that the plane seems to have almost landed, leading to the initial reports that it had crashed on takeoff.
“It looks like they almost touched down, pulled up from the runway and climbed to 800 or 900 feet,” Johnson said.
NTSB investigators were able to visit the crash site Sunday. Broken treetops on 40-foot-high birch trees, about 830 feet short of the airport’s runway threshold, marked the plane’s initial impact point.
“The airplane impacted in a nose low attitude and came to rest upright in an area of gravel-covered terrain alongside a road adjacent to the airport,” NTSB officials wrote. “An on-scene documentation of the wreckage was completed, and a detailed wreckage examination is pending.”
According to Johnson, investigators still have much to learn about the crash from its most direct witness.
“An important part of this puzzle is obviously being able to talk to the surviving passenger,” Johnson said. “Her injuries haven’t allowed us to talk to her.”
Weather data from the Wasilla Airport nine miles away, recorded about 20 minutes after the crash, indicated winds from the northeast at 5 knots, with visibility at 10 miles and overcast skies with cloud cover at 10,000 feet.
Editor's note: An inaccurate statement attributed to NTSB Alaska chief Clint Johnson that private pilots are exempt from FAA "bottle to throttle" regulations has been corrected.
This is a developing story. Please check KTUU.com and the Channel 2 newscasts for updates.