"Pilot Unresponsiveness" Cited In Stevens Crash

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The NTSB says it can't be sure, but it seems likely that something bad happened to the pilot of the turbine Otter that crashed in Alaska last Aug. 9, killing Sen. Ted Stevens and four others. It's not often that NTSB investigators fail to agree on the probable cause of an accident, but on Tuesday the board wrapped up its investigation of the crash by concluding that the evidence available is inadequate to determine what really happened. The facts available fail to support any single theory above others, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersmann said. "We believe something happened in that cockpit," she told reporters after the meeting. The pilot, Theron "Terry" Smith, had been grounded for two years after a stroke, but had regained his certificate in 2008. The board said Smith, who died in the crash, may have suffered another stroke or seizure in the last moments of the flight, or might have been stressed by the recent death of his son-in-law. A front-seat passenger was asleep at the time of the crash, and the three other survivors could not recall anything unusual that might explain what happened.

The board couldn't find any mechanical failure to explain why the Otter flew into a mountain, and the weather was not especially bad. They concluded that the crash was due to "the pilot's temporary unresponsiveness for reasons that could not be established from the available information." The board said they would have had a better chance at finding a cause if the airplane was equipped with a cockpit recorder system that could capture audio, images, and parametric data. Their report also recommends that the FAA should review its procedures for re-issuing medical certificates after a stroke, and says AOPA should work to educate pilots of Part 91 operations about "the benefits of notifying passengers about the location and operation of survival and emergency communication equipment on board their airplanes." A synopsis of the board's findings has been posted online.