After six aircraft accidents in 19 months—including two fatal plane crashes near St. Mary’s and Kwethluk since November—the National Transportation Safety Board is taking the unusual step of urging the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct an audit of Hageland Aviation and other air operators falling under the Ravn Alaska banner.
NTSB Alaska Chief Clint Johnson said the board’s seven-page letter to the FAA lays out an “urgent” recommendation to review operations by HoTH, Inc., the parent company of Hageland and Ravn Alaska, formerly Era Alaska.
Johnson said the NTSB’s investigations in fatal and non-fatal crashes dating from mid-2012 found Hageland operators allowed flights to be released without knowing all of the risks involved in particular flights, had deficiencies in training and qualifications, and had 11 documented compliance failures.
Preliminary investigations link all three of those issues to the Hageland crash in St. Mary’s last November. Johnson said the board was set to appeal to the FAA after that crash, but waited for Hageland to work out a solution.
“Right after the St. Mary’s accident we were contemplating issuing this recommendation,” Johnson said, “but Hageland and the FAA got together and came up with the operational control center. We elected to go ahead and not make the recommendation at the time.”
The control center, located in Palmer, provides oversight and management for the company’s flights statewide. Despite what Johnson calls monumental changes for the better, Hageland lost two more pilots in another fatal crash just last month.
“Unfortunately, just a short time after (the decision to wait on the recommendations was made), they had another fatal accident,” Johnson said, “which caused us to go ahead and institute the urgent recommendation.”
Without any regulatory authority, the NTSB can only recommend that the FAA act. To that end, they’re calling on the agency to bring an investigative team from outside Alaska to look at Hageland’s operations, policies, and procedures.
But Johnson said the board’s letter doesn’t stop there: it’s also asking the FAA to review itself.
“The second part of the recommendation would be (to have) an outside entity, an FAA entity, outside the state of Alaska, to look at the policies, procedures, and effectiveness of the FAA as far as their oversight abilities.”
That oversight includes inspector qualifications, turnover, and workload. The letter specifically highlights a lack of staffing at the FAA-run Anchorage Flight Standards District Office, which the letter states was denied staffing increases over two years during which “several accidents” occurred, including the St. Mary’s crash.
“That was some of the items that came out of various interviews that we did as an area to look at,” Johnson said. “As far as the final determination, as far as if the staffing levels were adequate, we’ll leave that up to the FAA and this third-party team to take a look at.”
Johnson called the urgent recommendations “very rare,” and is an action he has not seen in his 17 years with the NTSB in Alaska.
The NTSB said it’s looking for a response from the FAA within 30 days, but in a statement released Thursday, FAA spokesperson Allen Kenitzer said the FAA “began increased surveillance of Hageland Aviation in 2011 … before the NTSB issued its recommendations.”
Kenitzer’s statement stated the the FAA “decided to send an audit team from outside Alaska to look at the carrier and the FAA’s oversight.” He wrote that the team was on-site this week and is made up of “highly experienced inspectors with many years of experience auditing carriers and FAA certificate management team activities.”
Kenitzer said the FAA will review the NTSB’s recommendations within 90 days.
Ravn Alaska CEO Bob Hajdukavich was traveling Thursday, but said in a brief statement that the NTSB’s request for an audit is “a step behind our own work.” He said Ravn is in the process of completing an independent audit of Hageland.
Hageland communications director Steve Smith did not return phone or email messages Thursday.