Official: Distress beacon registered to downed plane in Alaska; no alert reported, though

By Becky Bohrer, AP
Friday, August 13, 2010

NOAA: Distress beacon registered to Alaska plane

JUNEAU, Alaska — A sophisticated beacon was registered to the plane that crashed in Alaska, killing former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and four others, but it wasn’t clear whether it was onboard during the flight.

If the type of beacon is properly registered, not only would a distress signal be picked up by a control center via satellites, but registration information — such as the owner’s name — would also appear.

This is intended to allow officials to try to reach the plane, to help determine the nature of the alert, to rule out whether it’s a false alarm, and to get more detail about where an accident happened.

A system database shows the beacon as registered to the Alaska plane, said Lt. Shawn Maddock, an operations support officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking program.

But the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Deborah Hersman, said Thursday that no beacon or alert went off, and investigators were trying to determine if a locator device of some sort was on board.

The agency was scheduled to hold a news conference Friday afternoon in Anchorage.

The float plane crashed Monday en route from a lodge to a southwest Alaska fishing camp. Had the most direct route been taken, the crash would have occurred about 15 minutes from the point of takeoff, according to Hersman.

Camp guide Byron Orth said the lodge called guides to let them know the party was heading to the Nushagak River camp. But when no one showed up, Orth figured the trip had been canceled. Hours later, the lodge called and asked if the group was returning yet.

Orth, a Beaverton, Ore., resident who has spent the past six summers working at the fish camp, said people at the camp and lodge feared the worst had happened.

“You’re hoping for the best, but there’s a bad feeling in your stomach,” he said.

Stevens’ daughter said her father, a pilot in World War II, was an advocate of making planes safe.

“He loved flying … he got certified to fly floatplanes just a few years ago,” Lily Stevens Becker said Friday on the “Today” show. “He had no concerns about flying in Alaska, but he was concerned about making planes as safe as possible.”

Hersman has said the plane lacked a technology Stevens had championed, technology intended to allow pilots to see cockpit displays, concise weather information and location of other aircraft in the area. But she said it had a “nicely equipped” cockpit and that investigators were still trying to get a sense for all the equipment on board.

Maddock said the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t require that aircraft use the more sophisticated-type beacon — just some type of emergency locator transmitter. Under the newer system, he said once an alert triggered by a crash or hard landing goes off, it usually takes just 6 to 10 minutes for a control center to receive the information.

David Morris, a spokesman for General Communications Inc., the phone and Internet company to which the plane was registered, referred questions about the beacon to NTSB.

Whether those who died would have been helped by a quicker response seems unlikely, state medical examiner Dr. Katherine Raven said.

While she couldn’t speak to any specific case due to confidentiality rules, she said that injuries sustained were “severe and fatal” and a quicker response to the site probably wouldn’t have made a difference. She said the victims died from blunt-force trauma sustained in the accident.

But there were four survivors: an Anchorage hospital on Friday upgraded former NASA chief Sean O’Keefe from critical to serious condition. O’Keefe’s son, Kevin O’Keefe, remained in fair condition. Jim Morhard also was in fair condition, and William “Willy” Phillips Jr. was in good condition.

Hersman said Thursday that investigators were looking at weather, pilot information and plane maintenance records. Departure times gleaned by investigators have differed by about an hour, as has the timing of the wreckage discovery.

There was no black box or flight plan filed — though a flight plan wasn’t required, authorities have said.

Pilot Theron Smith was involved in a 1997 incident, in which his plane nosed over during a landing at an airport in King Salmon, according to an NTSB report. No one was injured.

Smith was a temporary replacement for the regular pilot, who had unexpectedly quit, Morris said. He was qualified to fly the plane, and fly in that part of the country, he said.

GCI President and CEO Ron Duncan told the Anchorage Daily News that Smith was familiar with the route and had flown it dozens of times over the 10 days just before the crash.

A GCI executive, Dana Tindall, and her 16-year-old daughter Corey were among those killed, as was Smith and William “Bill” Phillips Sr., who had worked with Stevens in Washington.

Morris said about 13 people originally came out to the lodge last Saturday for what he characterized as “primarily a Stevens’ trip.”

He said Stevens, for years, used GCI’s lodge — and others, around Alaska — to show politicians and regulators what life in rural Alaska was like.

Morris said the group was made up primarily of colleagues and friends of Stevens, and the event was being hosted by several GCI executives who had known members of the group for years.

Associated Press Writers Rachel D’Oro and Mary Pemberton in Anchorage, Alaska, and AP News Researcher Julie Reed Bell in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.

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