A plane that crashed last year in Broad Pass near Cantwell, killing three people, was on an Alaska tour marked by disputes between its pilots before it made a low pass over an airport runway and continued six miles into poor weather.
The National Transportation Safety Board on Friday released its factual report, as well as a public docket of records, detailing the June 28 crash of the twin-engine Beech Baron 95-B55. Dale Hemman, a 61-year-old pilot and Steilacoom, Wash., resident died in the crash along with a couple from South Carolina: 74-year-old rated pilot John Ellenberg of Greenville, S.C., and 52-year-old Laurie Buckner of Simpsonville, S.C.
According to the NTSB, Hemman’s plane was flying as a weather scout in advance of an annual aerial tour he organized. Two sets of aircraft in the 18 planes participating -- a fast group and a slow group, separated by their airspeeds -- were following the Baron.
Hemman “owned and operated a tour group business called Let's Fly Alaska, through which pilots provide their own airplanes, and travel as a group on a guided tour from Washington and then throughout Alaska, before returning to their respective bases,” NTSB officials wrote.
‘THE YOUTUBE GUY’
Clint Johnson, the NTSB’s chief investigator in Alaska, said Hemman became known in Alaska aviation circles as “the YouTube guy” after posting a video of a July 26, 2012 crash with two minor injuries that occurred when he lost power on takeoff from Fairbanks International Airport. The Beechcraft F33A Bonanza, which was also with a Let’s Fly Alaska group, carried an array of external cameras which captured the crash from several angles.
“Because of this YouTube thing, (Hemman) became pretty notable,” Johnson said. “He probably meant to sell the video -- it’s an air-to-air record of the trip to Alaska.”
After the 2013 crash, NTSB technicians examined five external video cameras mounted on the Baron (PDF) in a similar fashion, including some which had been reused from the Bonanza. All they found on fragmentary video files from memory cards, however, was video from earlier flights -- including the crash at Fairbanks International.
“All of the file fragments discovered were successfully recovered as video files,” investigators wrote. “However, review of the video files confirmed none of the videos was of the accident flight.”
Johnson said the absence of video from the cameras is especially frustrating because the Baron had neither cockpit voice nor data recorders.
“The only recorders on the plane that were incidental to the report were the cameras on the outside of the plane,” Johnson said.
‘FLYING WITH ME’
Much of the NTSB report deals with the question of whether Hemman or Ellenberg was the plane's pilot in command -- the person Federal Aviation Administration regulations say is “directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.”
Hemman’s widow, Eileen, told investigators that her husband believed he was medically unfit to be pilot in command on the 2013 tour, prompting him to ensure he was accompanied by someone capable of doing so.
“She said that he then arranged to have (Ellenberg) accompany him on his trip to Alaska, because he qualified as PIC, and met all of the FAA and insurance policy requirements,” investigators wrote.
In a cover letter accompanying two documents Eileen Hemman provided to the NTSB (PDF), she said her husband was being treated for cancer but took steps to ensure safety on his flights.
“In the days preceding the crash that killed him, my husband was exhibiting serious health issues that were apparent to others that were on the flight,” Hemman wrote. “My husband always made safety his primary concern.”
The documents, however, offer conflicting statements from Ellenberg on his status during the flight. In a signed Let’s Fly Alaska waiver form dated Oct. 10, 2012, Ellenberg lists himself as pilot in command -- but a reservation form has different notes.
“At the top of the page, written in handwritten letters, were the words ‘Flying with me,’” investigators wrote. “The comments section at the bottom of the document stated in part ‘Would plan to fly with (Hemman) as cockpit or front seat passenger.’”
Johnson said that despite the documents, statements received by the NTSB show Hemman was still acting as pilot in command.
“It was clear to us right out of the chute that the one working the controls or making the decisions was (Hemman),” Johnson said.
‘WAY TOO RISKY’
Bob Ellenberg, John’s brother, told investigators (PDF) John came to Alaska with Laurie Buckner, his girlfriend, at Hemman’s request. After John brokered the sale of an aircraft for Hemman then flew it to Washington, Hemman offered the two free seats on a Let’s Fly Alaska tour -- but when Bob called to ask for an update, he was told things were not going well as the two men took turns at the Baron’s stick.
John “said that Dale was obnoxious, arrogant, and abrasive and was way too risky in his flying,” investigators wrote. “He said he gets down right on the treetops, through passes that are way too narrow.”
Ellenberg also told his brother that Hemman was flying as pilot in command despite being “so obese he could only fit in the left seat.”
Bob “told him to just jump on a commercial airplane and come home,” investigators wrote. “John stated that he was flying with one hand lightly on the controls and thought he would be all right.”
Vic Syracuse, leader of the tour’s fast group, said in a written statement (PDF) that Ellenberg approached him during the tour to discuss Hemman’s flying. He told Syracuse that while he and Buckner found Hemman’s handling of the aircraft “terrifying,” Buckner had convinced him not to challenge it for fear of worsening the situation.
“John said that as they were approaching a hilltop at a dangerously low altitude he asked Dale if he was going to climb,” Syracuse wrote. “John stated that Dale ‘went off on him with a bunch of four-letter expletives telling John to not tell him how to fly his airplane.’ John said that if the wheels had been down they would have hit the hill.”
The confused lines of authority became clear to Syracuse after he suggested that Ellenberg use his position as pilot in command to stop Hemman from flying.
“John gave me a look that I did not understand until Dale mentioned at breakfast on June 28 that John didn’t know Dale required another pilot due to his medical condition,” Syracuse wrote. “Only afterwards do we now understand that probably the only person who didn’t understand he was (pilot in command) was John.”
‘NO WAY TO GET THROUGH’
The Beech Baron took off from Fairbanks International Airport that Friday at 10 a.m. headed for Homer via Windy Pass and Broad Pass. While visual flight conditions prevailed on takeoff, conditions became gradually worse as the planes headed south. Syracuse, the fast group leader, took off about 10 minutes behind Hemman’s Baron but soon decided to land.
“He elected to land his group at the Healy River Airport,” investigators wrote.
The slow group leader, Dick Smith, also landed his group at Healy River. When he learned the Baron leading the tour had crashed, he tried to reach the area but didn't even get as far as Summit Airport, six miles northeast of the crash site.
Smith “stated that Vic somehow got word that the Baron was down and after 45 minutes to an hour at Healy River he departed to take a look. Just before Summit he turned around, he stated that there was no way to get through the pass, with thick clouds to the ground.”
The NTSB report said instrument meteorological conditions prevailed in the Broad Pass area.
‘FLYING IN AND OUT OF THE CLOUDS’
Johnson said investigators got a recent break in the case when Doug Glenn, a pilot who was flying fuel out of Summit Airport, told the NTSB he saw the Baron just before it went down at about 10:20 a.m.
Glenn “stated that the airplane was about 400 feet above ground level (AGL) and flying in and out of the clouds,” investigators wrote. “About an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes later he heard sirens.”
The pilot reported weather at the Summit Airport was broken clouds at about 250 feet and overcast at about 350 feet, with thin wispy fog hanging in the trees. Glenn said the Baron was flying not just low but also fast.
“This thing was just screaming down the center of the runway, just cooking,” Johnson said. “And they were expecting him to come in and land.”
The NTSB report lists no weather readings from the Summit Airport but describes images taken that day by a set of FAA weather cameras at the airport.
‘NO MEANINGFUL DATA’
Wreckage and flames from the crashed plane were first spotted by an Alaska Division of Forestry worker near Mile 195 of the Parks Highway.
Hemman, Ellenberg and Buckner were all found dead at the crash site, and a cockpit fire damaged many instruments so extensively that the report says they “could provide no meaningful data.”
Johnson says the NTSB investigator assigned to the Cantwell crash, Brice Banning, had also been assigned to the 2012 crash Hemman posted on YouTube.
“Brice did the first one in Fairbanks, and almost a year later to the day he’s doing this fatal one,” Johnson said.