By Jenny Neyman
Many answers had surfaced a day after the most deadly airplane crash in Alaska since 1995. A de Havilland DHC3 turbine Otter flown by Walter “Willy” Rediske, of Nikiski-based Rediske Air charter operation, crashed shortly after takeoff Sunday at about 11:20 a.m. at the Soldotna Airport.
Rediske, 42, of Nikiski, and all nine passengers — two South Carolina families on their way to Bear Mountain Lodge across Cook Inlet in Chinitna Bay — died in the fiery crash, the most deadly in Alaska since an aircraft crashed at Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage, killing 24, in 1995, and on the Kenai Peninsula since a 1987 Ryan Air crash in Homer, killing 18.
The identities of the passengers hadn’t been released by authorities Monday, and a National Transportation Safety Bureau representative Monday said that the information would be released by the Soldotna Police Department, pending conformation of identification of the remains and contacting next of kin.
But The Associated Press, via The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., identified the two families as Melet and Kimberly Antonakos of Greenville, S.C., and their children, Olivia, 16, Mills, 14, and Anastacia, 11; and Chris McManus and Stacey McManus, also of Greenville, and their two children, Connor and Meghan.
In the hours and day following the ominous black plume of smoke that rose above treetops in Soldotna into a cloudy sky, the what, when and who of the accident have trickled out to a community reeling from the shock of its sudden unwanted notoriety. But the main question — why? — remains, and will be the most difficult to answer.
“We’re just beginning the investigation so we don’t have a great deal of detailed information,” said Earl Weener, board member of the National Transportation Safety Bureau, early Monday evening in a brief press conference at the gates of the Soldotna Airport. The airport reopened Monday.
NTSB responds to all aircraft and other major transportation accidents in the U.S., dispatching a “Go Team” of trained investigators from Washington, D.C., under the direction of an on-site investigator, and accompanied by a board member and information officer.
This will likely be a difficult investigation, since no eye witnesses have yet been identified, the plane was not carrying a voice or data recorder — it was not required to — and not much of the plane remains to be examined. All but the tail section burned into twisted, melted wreckage that now lies in a heap just to the right of the airport’s main, mile-long runway.
There is no clear indication of what went so horribly wrong. Weather was reportedly fine for flying Sunday morning — overcast with light winds. The plane got airborne then crashed shortly after takeoff. The area around the aircraft was characterized as relatively intact, indicating the plane didn’t drag on the ground, which it might have done in a failed takeoff. A catastrophic fire consumed much of the wreckage, which could mean the plane was full of fuel. The engine is intact, though the two propellers are bent and the wings were torn from the fuselage, Weener said.
Weener said that this could be classified as a loss-of-control accident, and investigation will focus on determining whether that loss of control stemmed from weather conditions, a mechanical issue or some other problem.
“We have a propulsion specialist who is currently looking at that, to understand how much power the engine may have been producing at the time of impact,” Weener said. “We’ll look at weather. We’ll look at the loading. We’ll look at the mechanical performance of the airplane, try to understand what the condition of the flight controls were.”
Though the plane wasn’t equipped with voice or data recorders, some information might be recoverable from electronics on-board, including two cellphones that were recovered in the wreckage, Weener said. On-site investigation will continue for five to eight days, then investigators will pack up and continue their work back in Washington, D.C., in an investigation that could take six months or longer. A preliminary report is expected within a month.
“Early on information is always particularly misleading, that’s one reason why we’ve got a large team (on site). We want to identify the facts and we stick with the facts, we don’t speculate. We will be looking at facts for the next many months, a good part of the year,” Weener said.
Pilots and mechanics familiar with the turbine Otter say it’s a widely used workhorse of a plane in Alaska aviation, generally known for its reliability and longevity. Turbine Otters are usually retrofit, in which the older, heavier and less-powerful radial piston engine is removed and replaced with a lighter, more powerful, more reliable turbine engine, most commonly the Pratt and Whitney PT6.
“That’s probably the single most common engine used in all smaller commercial aircraft like the Otter and many others. It is known to be an exceptionally reliable and time-proven engine,” said Joe Kashi, a Soldotna pilot and attorney who has participated in civil action regarding aviation accidents, including the 1987 Ryan Air crash in Homer.
At first blush, that accident had similarities to Sunday’s Soldotna crash, he said. But in that crash there were survivors, a witness, and that plane — a Beech 1900 — didn’t burn upon impact.
“The older de Havilland aircraft, like the Beaver and Otter, have fuel tanks in the belly, and thus are apparently more prone to fire with a hard impact. Although turbine fuel is basically cheap kerosene and harder to ignite than gasoline, once it’s burning, it burns long and hot,” Kashi said. “The Beech 1900 in Homer hit hard but it didn’t burn.”
In talking with fellow pilots, mechanics and a crash scene reconstructive investigator, there are several possibilities, Kashi said, from something as relatively unlikely — though not unheard of in Alaska — as birds being sucked into the engine, to some kind of engine malfunction to a problem with the plane’s weight and balance.
The crash location on the right side about halfway down the runway suggests that the aircraft lost stability and control on takeoff, stalling and rolling toward its right side as it dropped, Kashi said.
“If it was a simple loss-of-power incident, the pilot would have just lowered the nose and landed straight ahead using the remainder of the runway. We’re all taught to do that — it’s very basic,” he said.
“Though engine failures are uncommon in the usually reliable Otters, if an engine were to fail it is most likely to do so at takeoff or within two minutes afterward, when the engine is under the most stress,” Kashi said.
A catastrophic engine failure could result in a midair fire and/or engine parts being shed along the takeoff trajectory, which could unbalance the plane and cause it to crash, Kashi said.
Weight and balance issues could prove key.
“Because the turbine engines are lighter, the turbine Otters tend to have a problem with being tail-heavy, and are thus easier to overload aft. That negatively affects balance, stability and ability to recover from a problem in the air, particularly on takeoff when the aircraft wants to go nose high in any event due to the application of power. You have less margin to recover,” Kashi said. “They’re good airplanes but they tend to be prone to tail-heavy weight and balance crashes and they tend to burn when they hit.”
NTSB will be looking for clues in any recovered engine parts, as well as attempting to determine how and how full the plane might have been loaded.
“I think the only thing you can really say is it’s going to be a difficult investigation because most everything was destroyed in the fire, so they wouldn’t realistically be able to do an accurate weighing of the contents of the aircraft to check the weight and balance to see whether it was within safe and legal limits, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone so far who has come forward who actually saw the thing happen and who was a pilot or had aerodynamical knowledge. So they’re going to have a job for themselves,” Kashi said.
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What is known is that Rediske Air and Walter Rediske himself had a good reputation for being competent and responsible. Walter’s father, Charlie Rediske, started the air taxi business in 1991. Walter and his sister, Lyla, took over the business when their father died in 2001. The business has thrived, with six airplanes, offices in Nikiski and Anchorage, and expanding charter contracts, including flying passengers and supplies on vacation excursions all over the peninsula and across the inlet, as well as flying oil field cargo and workers.
“It’s a top-notch outfit, top-notch pilots, maintenance is top notch — super, actually,” said Jim Herrick, of Nikiski, a pilot and 60-year certified aviation mechanic. “Everything there is number one. The way the maintenance is done — it’s done right to the letter, and there’s all kinds of good pilots there. Willy was a fantastic pilot.”
Kelli Brewer, of Alaska West Air in Nikiski, with husband, Doug Brewer, said Alaska West and Rediske fly different types of services — Alaska West on floats and Rediske on wheels, but the local flying community is small, and though she didn’t know Rediske well herself, she knew of his reputation.
“When he took over Rediske I’ve seen that company grow, they’ve got a really successful business and they have got some good contracts. From everything I know of him he’s just a really, really nice man. It’s a shock and it’s a sad day for the whole flying community,” Brewer said.
The small-town nature of Nikiski, particularly just the aviation portion of it, would be an amplification factor if there were anything negative to say of someone. Brewer said she’s never heard an ill word so much as breathed about Rediske.
“If he would have been bad we wouldn’t have known about it. I believe he was pretty careful, he ran a good business and was a really good man, and that’s a sad thing. You hate to see that happen to good people,” she said.
The Soldotna Airport reopened Monday, and Brewer was parked by a friend’s plane for a while early Monday evening when the plane bearing the NTSB crew arrived.
“I was sitting there looking at the crash thinking about the fact that my husband’s coming home tonight, and what it would be if it wasn’t Willy. Just sitting there doing some soul searching. It’s a sad, tragic thing. He had three small kids and a wife who loved him,” Brewer said. “There are so many families hurting right now.”
Doug Weathers is another longtime Nikiski pilot. One of his sons attended school with Rediske, and Weathers has known Willy and his family for more than 20 years.
“Most people that have aircraft, they know each other. His dad was a really nice guy, and I knew Will. From what I could see of his operation his planes always looked well kept up and they took good care of their machinery. Will was a nice person, he wasn’t no hot shot or nothing like that. He was just real down to earth and very businesslike about things. In fact, his whole family was that way,” Weathers said.
Given that Rediske flew on oil field contracts, he thinks that’s a good indication of strong maintenance practices.
“If you’re flying for an oil company you’ll take care of your machinery or you won’t fly for them, because I think they pretty well come in and audit your stuff to make sure they’re up to snuff. And (Rediske) hauls a lot of oil field workers,” Weathers said.
Add to that the FAA requirements of commercial operations, he said.
“When you own an airplane and you fly commercial, you don’t just work on it when you get to feeling like you ought to or when it isn’t running right. You do the inspections on them — inspections after inspections, and they’ve gotta be all documented in a log book, and you gotta have them books open to the FAA, and when they walk in they better be up to speed,” Weathers said. “If you want to do shoddy stuff you probably can, but you won’t get by with it for very long. You won’t get by with it as long as Will’s been doing work. They’ve been on the peninsula for a long time and I’ve never heard anything negative about Will or his dad or his family.”
Weathers hopes the public keeps that in mind during the crash investigation. Such a large scale of tragedy can leave people feeling raw, and the way the lingo goes, many things could be classified as “pilot error” that don’t necessarily mean anything egregious was done.
“When you say ‘pilot error’ people are going say, ‘Oh my God, it’s all his fault,’ and it’s not. Pilot error could be a hundred different things. What the FAA calls pilot error could mean I didn’t check every nut and bolt in the airplane before I took off. But it could take months to check every nut and bolt in an airplane. When you get into turbine airplanes they’re high-performance airplanes. They’ve got lots of horsepower and they get thousands of hours out of an engine but, you know, sometimes if things go bad, they go really bad,” Weathers said.
“Rediske looks like they ran a straight show and are just nice people. I’ve never heard anybody say anything negative about his flying habits and how he handled the airplanes and how he did business,” he said.
For now, as investigation progresses, grieving family and friends and a shocked community are able to only grasp at answers to help fill a gaping loss.
“I’ve been around airplanes for the last 40 years and I’ve seen quite a few accidents,” Weathers said. “And they’re more tragic when they’re close to you. And this is just a bad, bad wreck — that’s for sure. The community will miss them, I can tell you that.”