Back in July of 2018, a turbine otter with eleven passengers departed Ketchikan Alaska for a site seeing tour. Heavy rain and clouds descended around the floatplane as it threaded through steep peaks and fjords en route to Ketchikan. One of the passengers had some hours flying float planes, later said he kept thinking the pilot must have a plan. He spotted a plane sitting on the water near a resort, as if its pilot had landed to get out of the weather.Then the Taquan Air de Havilland Otter smashed into the side of Mount Jumbo.
Amazingly all 11 survived but 6 had serious injuries. The NTSB report that includes passenger interviews also faults the Federal Aviation Administration for allowing Taquan to hire an operations director too busy to oversee flight safety.An FAA spokesman said Thursday the agency was just seeing the report and couldn’t immediately respond to questions.
Pilot Mike Hudgins, 71 at the time, picked up his passengers for the flight to Ketchikan before 8 a.m. that day. Navigating through mountains at about 1,100 feet altitude, he told investigators that visibility suddenly dropped.Turning back toward Hydaburg, Hudgins spotted what he thought was water for landing below but realized it was snow, he said. He saw the mountain in front of him and pulled up into an emergency climb. The plane stalled and dropped onto the rocky slope, slamming into boulders at 75 mph.The near-tragedy was reminiscent of the 2015 crash of a Promech Air flightseeing plane that killed the pilot and eight cruise-ship passengers aboard. Both floatplane pilots got disoriented in low-visibility weather that can arise quickly in Southeast Alaska, where tourists and residents alike rely on air service. Mike H did not use the anti terrain system during his flight which warns of terrain near him. The plane crashed on its belly, wings drooping but with little front-end damage. Rescuers hoisted everyone aboard to a landing area, then flew them to Ketchikan.
At the time, the Director of Operation had just moved to Anchorage to accept a Chief Pilot job. At the time there was also no Company Safety officer. Taquan’s chief pilot told them that, along with a workload that got heavy in summer, he was handling a lot of the operational duties as well because the operations director was in Anchorage.Working for two such carriers at the same time is prohibited by FAA regulations that bar managers for commuter services from also working for other carriers.The operations director said FAA inspectors for Grant and Taquan both knew he worked at the two companies, according to the report. He had resigned from Taquan but agreed to stay on when they couldn’t find 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 said in an interview with federal investigators.
But one FAA maintenance inspector based in Ketchikan said she warned managers she had concerns about the dual jobs, given the size of Taquan’s operation and the director’s integral role in operations the summer before. Taquan had told the agency it was adding two Otters to its fleet.“That’s another 20 people being moved each round … of flights,” she said in an interview with investigators. "So that’s increased risk, increased operation, increased number of people. I think that was part of the conversation, if I remember right.”
The federal safety investigators found that lower-level flight coordinators were making operational decisions – like whether to fly – in the absence of the Anchorage-based director.The coordinators also filled out preflight forms weighing various risks including turbulence, the pilot’s condition, and the weather at the time of the trip. Pilots interviewed by investigators said they never changed the form based on their own observations.The risk reports used numerical scores to weigh the dangers of any particular flight. Taquan considered anything under 20 relatively routine.
Still, the crash flight’s score of 13 – based on distance from Ketchikan and several other factors, none of them weather – was high enough to fall into a “caution” zone that required manager involvement. The flight coordinator, pilot and chief pilot signed off.