Federal officials investigating a mid-air collision between two aircraft that killed seven people in Soldotna, Alaska, in July, said that Alaska state representative Gary Knopp had been denied a medical certificate required of pilots eight years ago due to vision problems.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it’s too early to determine whether Rep. Knopp’s poor vision caused or contributed to the deadly collision, but it is one of the potential factors investigators are focusing on.
The NTSB’s preliminary report of the July 31 plane crash says that Mr. Knopp took off from Soldotna Airport at 8:24 a.m. in a Piper PA-12 bound for Fairbanks. At the same time, a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver floatplane operated by High Adventure Air Charter took off from Longmere Lake headed to a remote fishing location.
The PA-12 was flying northwest and the Beaver was traveling northeast when they collided less than three minutes after takeoff at an altitude of 1,175 feet.
A witness told the NTSB that Mr. Knopp’s PA-12 struck the DHC-2 Beaver on the left side near the back of the plane. The witness said it looked like the Beaver’s left wing separated and “the airplane entered an uncontrolled, descending counterclockwise spiral before disappearing from view.”
The witness could not say what happened with the PA-12 following the collision. Paint transfer marks on the Beaver wreckage were consistent with the witness’s account, the NTSB report said. The wreckage of both airplanes was found about three miles north of the Soldotna Airport.
The mid-air collision killed Mr. Knopp, the sole occupant of the PA-12, and six others on the Beaver: pilot Greg Bell, 57, an owner of High Adventure Charter; David Rogers, 40, a fishing guide; Caleb Hulsey, 26, and his wife Heather Hulsey, 25; Caleb Hulsey’s brother Mackay Hulsey, 24, and his fiancée Kristin Wright, 23. The Hulsey group was visiting from South Carolina. There were no survivors.
In their investigation, NTSB investigators found that FAA Civil Aeromedical Institute records show Mr. Knopp was denied a medical certificate in June 2012 because of vision problems. Mr. Knopp appealed that decision, but the denial was upheld a month later. The report does not specify the nature of Mr. Knopp’s vision problems. Federal air regulations require pilots to have a medical certificate to legally fly.
The NTSB report said that weather conditions at the time of the crash were clear and calm.
The NTSB is also looking into why the registration card inside Mr. Knopp’s plane didn’t match the registration number on the PA-12’s exterior. The card identified the airplane as a Piper PA-12 with a registration number of N2587M. The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) registration database revealed that N2587M was a valid registration for a Piper PA-12 assigned to the pilot. However, the PA-12’s exterior registration number identified the airplane as N1904T.
Moreover, the word “EXPERIMENTAL” was applied to the inside of the lower clamshell door. A search of the FAA registration database revealed that the registration number had been reserved by the pilot but was not a valid registration, the NTSB report said.
The NTSB’s investigation of the plane crash is ongoing. The board normally issues a final report and determination of the crash causes in 12 to 24 months.
Beasley Allen lawyer Mike Andrews focuses much of his practice on aviation litigation. Mike has represented people seriously injured in a variety of aviation crashes similar to the one described in this story, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes. He currently represents families of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 victims involving the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.