NTSB: “No Working Theories” In PC-12 Crash Investigation

photo by Jerry Search

At a press briefing on Tuesday afternoon in Montana, members of the NTSB said that so far nothing points to a likely cause for Sunday’s fatal crash of a Pilatus PC-12, in which 14 people died. One of many mysteries is why the pilot chose to divert to Butte, when Bozeman was the flight’s intended destination. “It’s a question,” Mark Rosenker, the NTSB’s acting chairman, told reporters. “There’s a lot of questions, but it begins with that question.” The pilot, Ellison “Bud” Summerfield, did not declare any emergency. Rosenker said Summerfield’s voice betrayed no sign of stress when he spoke with ATC about the diversion. Investigators will be retrieving more ATC tapes from Salt Lake City and they may request cellphone records for the airplane’s passengers to see if they can find any clues for the reason the pilot diverted. Rosenker also said an engine performance recorder was found in the wreckage, but added that it might not offer much help. “It will tell us about the engine and how it’s doing, [but] it is not designed for accident investigation,” he said. NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said the safety board already has examined the issue of a known problem with the aircraft’s elevator controls, which was addressed in an FAA Airworthiness Directive in March, and determined it had nothing to do with Sunday’s crash. Although the 10-seat airplane was carrying 14 people, and icing was reported in the area, neither weight-and-balance issues nor icing factors seem to be standing out as likely causes to the NTSB. Seven of those on board were small children, and the airplane was certified for flight in icing conditions. “Nothing is off the table in this investigation,” Rosenker said. “But nothing also, at the same time, is leading us to specific working theories.”

The NTSB also said on Tuesday that the airplane’s flaps were in the up position, and the landing gear was extended. Also, the airplane’s position seemed to be neither on a final approach to the airport’s northerly runway nor in a standard traffic pattern, but well off to the side of the runway. That could suggest that the pilot may have attempted a steep turn to enter the downwind leg of the runway approach — a maneuver that could be especially dangerous if the airplane was heavy or off-balance, or if there was ice. The three young families on board were on their way to a ski vacation at Big Sky Resort and their original destination was Bozeman, Mont., which is closer to the resort. In addition to the pilot, the victims were: Erin and Amy Jacobson of St. Helena, Calif., and their children, Taylor, 4, Ava, 3, and Jude, 1; Michael and Vanessa Pullen of Lodi, Calif., and their children, Sydney, 9, and Christopher, 7; and Brent and Kristen Ching of Durham, Calif., and their children, Hailey, 5, and Caleb, 3. For reports from Tuesday’s press conference, see The New York Times, CNN, and the Los Angeles Times.