ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - In July of 2018, a floatplane operated by Taquan Air crashed high in the mountains near Ketchikan with 11 people on board, leading to serious injuries for six passengers.
On Thursday, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a factual report of the crash, describing that pilot Mikes Hudgins, 71 at the time, had flown into heavy rain and clouds before crashing into a mountain.
Passengers on board the plane told the NTSB that there was “serious fog” during the flight and expressed concern about visibility.
The NTSB report raises questions about how Taquan Air was being operated at the time of the crash and who had the authority to cancel flights because of bad weather.
At the time of the crash, the operations director for Taquan Air was based out of Anchorage and was also working as the director of operations for Grant Aviation. Employees told the NTSB that he visited Taquan Air's Ketchikan base “about once a month but was available by phone, if necessary.”
With the operations director not present, the NTSB describes that no one in Ketchikan had the ultimate authority to cancel a flight.
As a result of the operations director being based in Anchorage, Taquan Air’s chief pilot had assumed a large number of his responsibilities. “He said both positions could be accomplished by one person during the wintertime, but it was more difficult during the summer months,” the NTSB report detailed.
Clint Johnson, the chief of the regional NTSB, said in his 22 years at the agency he couldn’t personally remember a time when an operations director would be working in the same position at a different company.
“I’m sure it’s probably been done in the past, but I personally don’t recall anything like this,” he said. “Keep in mind, these are two pretty good-sized operations, these are not one ship operations.”
According to the NTSB report, the FAA was made aware on “multiple occasions” that the director of operations for Taquan Air was also working for Grant Aviation.
FAA regulations bar an operations director working for two such companies at the same time.
"The regulation however does not stipulate a specific geographic location for this position. Further, the FAA has discretion in approving those who are nominated by carriers to serve in these positions," said Allen Kenitzer, a spokesperson for the FAA by email."The FAA also may determine that an individual may serve more than one carrier, which is not unheard of with smaller air carriers. Taquan hired a new DO [director of operations] shortly afterward and this remedied the situation."
Taquan Air’s then-operations director told NTSB investigators on July 10, 2018 that he was planning to leave the company at the end of the season. In the meantime, he worked remotely while Taquan Air looked for a replacement.
“My understanding was, it's much better to have you in that position doing what you do rather than have nobody in that position. And that was the FAA's position,” he told NTSB investigators.
Brian Salazar, the CEO of Taquan Air, told NTSB investigators in July of 2018 that a new operations director was starting soon at the company. Representatives for Taquan Air did not immediately respond to a request for comment about how operations had changed since the 2018 crash.
In 2019, Taquan Air had two deadly crashes within a week of each other. A midair collision near Ketchikan saw six passengers killed, one week later, two people died in a floatplane crash near Metlakatla.
Heavy workloads and low staffing levels at the FAA itself were also cited in the NTSB report.
The FAA supervisor for Taquan Air “stated that his workload was "heavy" and he did not have time to complete all his oversight tasks.” At the time of the 2018 crash, FAA inspector positions in Juneau remained unfilled.
The risk assessment procedures being used by Taquan Air to determine if a flight should go ahead were also highlighted by the NTSB. One pilot told the NTSB that the risk assessment form was “ ‘just a piece of paper with some ink on it’ and based go/no-go decisions on his experience and research instead.”
The NTSB’s factual report does not detail a probable cause for the 2018 crash - that report is due to be released in several weeks.
Hudgins, the pilot during the crash, said that "the airplane was running great."
The plane’s terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS) was turned off during the flight, a common factor in Alaska plane crashes. The NTSB has previously recommended to the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) that an Alaska-specific TAWS system should be implemented to better assist Alaska pilots.
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