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Did broken airport beacon contribute to fatal air crash near Lihue?

June 3rd, 2012 · No Comments · Politics

Did a malfunctioning warning beacon near the Lihue Airport on Kauai contribute to the fatal crash of a small plane carrying mail between the islands several years ago?

That seems to be a possible implication of an emergency procurement request filed by state airports officials seeking after the fact approval for emergency repairs on an “obstruction light” along the approach to the Lihue airport that had been damaged by lightning.

“The light keeps pilots from crashing during night operations and bad weather at the Lihue Airport,” according to the request, and is “an essential requirement” to meet FAA requirements for airport certification.

Note the last sentence in the May 18, 2012 emergency procurement request filed with the State Procurement Office by the Kauai District, DOT Airports Division:

The obstruction light at Carter’s Point was severely damaged during our last thunder storm. A lightning strike hit the lightning rod and melted the protective covering and several boards inside the housing unit that contains the computer and batteries. The light illuminates the mountain that is 799 ft high and about 2 thousand feet from the extended centerline of runway 35 (the major landing runway at Lihue Airport). During night operations and bad weather conditions, pilots must keep this obstruction light to their left side at all times or risk a very serious accident. If a pilot clips their left wing into this rugged cliff they will never make land and end up in the harbor, in approximately 4,000 ft of water. A plane carrying mail crashed into the ocean because the light was out of service and the pilot did not have a reference point to tell him he was too low and far from the runway.

An online search of news stories and aircraft accident reports turned up the crash of an Alpine Air plane carrying mail from Honolulu to Kauai shortly after 5 a.m. on January 14, 2008. It was a dark morning, and the flight plan indicated the pilot would be following instrument flight rules. The plane plunged into the ocean just a few miles short of the airport. The 38-year old pilot was killed.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found the pilot had probably become disoriented due to the dark night and a lack of “visual references,” but did not mention the light being “out of service.” In addition, none of the news reports about the crash made mention of a malfunctioning warning light.

According to the NTSB:

Although visual meteorological conditions prevailed, no natural horizon and few external visual references were available during the visual approach. This increased the importance of monitoring flight instruments to maintain awareness of the airplane attitude and altitude. The pilot’s tasks during the approach, however, included maintaining visual separation from the airplane ahead and lining up with the destination runway. These tasks required visual attention outside the cockpit. These competing tasks probably created shifting visual frames of reference, left the pilot vulnerable to common visual and vestibular illusions, and reduced his awareness of the airplane’s attitude, altitude and trajectory.

The NTSB concluded:

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
The pilot’s spatial disorientation and loss of situational awareness. Contributing to the accident were the dark night and the task requirements of simultaneously monitoring the cockpit instruments and the other airplane.

The questions are stacked up here. Was this the accident referred to in the emergency procurement request, or was there another crash involving a different mail plane and another set of circumstances? If this is the crash mentioned in the DOT procurement request, and the light at Carter’s Point was indeed out of service, was that disclosed to the NTSB during their investigation? If so, why wasn’t it mentioned in the NTSB probable cause findings? If not, why not? It’s a situation that seems to invite further digging.

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