The pilot of the airplane that crash-landed beneath Moanalua Freeway in June almost rented the Beech 19A that was involved in last weekend’s crash that killed four people near Kunia.
Honolulu attorney Rick Fried, who is representing a passenger in the June 30 crash, said Wednesday that his client and his client’s friends had originally wanted the Beech “because it had more power and they thought it would be more fun,” but ended up refusing it on suspicion of mechanical problems.
“They started up the plane on the ground, but when they got to a high-enough RPM, it sputtered and backfired,” Fried said. “They said that the owner came out and said it would be fine, but they tried it again and found they had the same problem. They were convinced it wasn’t safe.”
Instead they chose the circa-1971 Piper PA 28-140, another airplane belonging to Jahn Mueller, owner of Aircraft Maintenance and Flight School Hawaii. The three men were seriously hurt when the Piper lost power and crash-landed in a Mapunapuna stream under a Moanalua Freeway bridge.
On Saturday, four bodies were recovered from the wreckage of the plane that those three men rejected: Mueller’s Beech 19A, which was manufactured in 1969. Dean Hutton, 29, was piloting that four-seater. Gerrit Evensen, 28; Heather Riley, 27; and Alexis Aaron, 32, were the passengers.
The foursome took off from Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in the Beech for a sunset flight Friday but never returned. Friends and family reported them missing Saturday morning after discovering that their car was still parked near the airport at Lagoon Drive. A Coast Guard helicopter spotted the wreckage Saturday afternoon in a heavily forested area near the Palikea and Pohakea Pass trails in the Waianae Mountains. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said Wednesday that the Beech still had not been recovered from the mountainside.
On Sunday, Mueller responded to allegations from Hutton’s uncle Scott Potwin that the Beech had lost power and communications during an earlier flight piloted by Hutton. Mueller told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the Beech had previously experienced alternator problems but that the problem had been fixed.
“I have nothing else to say. No new info until NTSB comes out with prelim report,” Mueller texted the Star-Advertiser on Monday in response to an inquiry regarding the fatal Beech crash.
Mueller did not return a call from the Star-Advertiser on Wednesday seeking comment.
Fried’s client Jason Torikawa-Domingo, 22, of Ewa Beach, who survived the June 30 crash, declined to be interviewed, and the Star-Advertiser could not reach that flight’s pilot, Kenta Kumakura, a 20-year-old from Nagano, Japan, or the plane’s co-pilot, Jueru Higa, 28, of Yokohama, Japan.
Fried said the threesome thought that the “Piper seemed OK until they got it into the air.”
The pilot reported that the Piper’s single engine lost power at 300 feet shortly after takeoff, according to the NTSB’s preliminary report of the aviation accident, which was released July 10. The NTSB’s preliminary report says the Piper “made an emergency landing at the nearest clear area, which was a river bed. The airplane impacted the ground and came to rest under a highway bridge and caught fire.”
The NTSB is not expected to release its final crash report for the June 30 incident until next year.
“It’s still premature, but it looks like there may have been maintenance issues with regard to the aircraft,” Fried said. He said the Piper crash was “pretty clearly not pilot error.”
“They were flying straight and level and they were at 300 feet,” Fried said. “It’s remarkable they survived.”
The Piper was rented by the pilot, Kumakura, who held a private pilot’s certificate and had amassed 68 hours of flight, according to an NTSB pilot/operator aircraft accident/incident report, which was filled out by Torikawa-Domingo on July 9. The accident report said Higa, the co-pilot, held a commercial pilot’s certificate and had amassed 775 hours of flying, including 657 of them as pilot in command.
The men departed the airport at 1:20 p.m. and were flying in clear skies that offered more than 10 miles of unrestricted visibility, the accident report said. Wind speed was 17 knots, gusts were traveling at 25 knots, and there wasn’t any turbulence.
Torikawa-Domingo said in the accident report that a pre-flight inspection determined the plane to be airworthy with a minimum of 20 gallons of fuel on board. He stated that the pilot started the engine using a checklist and taxied to an open area to conduct a run-up. They did not file a flight plan.
Torikawa-Domingo was the second person to escape the aircraft, which was destroyed following a ground explosion and fire, the NTSB accident report said. The Piper’s wings were both broken and it had a burned engine, the report said.
All three aboard the June 30 plane crash suffered serious injuries, according to the report. Fried said back injuries, a broken jaw and dental trauma have kept Torikawa-Domingo from returning to his job as a network engineer. Fried said Torikawa-Domingo also is dealing with emotional scars.
“He still can’t drive because he can’t put his foot on the pedals because of the back injury, but he tells people who are driving him to avoid that part of the freeway,” he said.