The skydiving plane that crashed June 21 at Dillingham Airfield, killing all 11 aboard, seemed to be fine as it taxied down the runway to take off, but at about 150 to 200 feet in the air, it began turning, then hit the ground nose first and burst into flames.
That’s according to a parachute instructor at the Oahu Parachute Center, the company that operated the plane. The instructor witnessed the crash, and his comments were part of a preliminary report released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
“He could hear the engines during the initial ground roll and stated that the sound was normal, consistent with the engines operating at high power,” the report said.
When the plane came into his view as it headed toward him, the aircraft was at an altitude of 150 to 200 feet and appeared to be turning. “He could see its belly, with the top of the cabin facing the ocean to the north. The airplane then struck the ground in a nose-down attitude, and a fireball erupted.”
A surveillance video at the southeast corner of the airfield showed the Beechcraft 65-A90 plane was upside down at a 45-degree angle to the ground just before impact, the report said.
The NTSB did not speculate on the cause of the crash. That will take up to two years to determine, but NTSB investigators are looking into weather and runway conditions, pilot’s logbook and training records as well as weight and balance of the aircraft.
Robert Katz, a Dallas-based flight instructor and 38-year pilot who tracks nationwide plane crashes, said the plane may have been overloaded.
The NTSB report said two people boarded the twin-engine aircraft at the last minute for a total of 11.
The NTSB has said the plane can carry up to 13 people, but Katz said 11 could have been too many if the combined weight of the people and their equipment exceeded guidelines or wasn’t properly balanced.
“For an airplane to be inverted, it’s possible that there was engine failure, but I doubt it. It was probably so tail-heavy that it stalled and rolled over, and it was so low to the ground that there was no hope of recovery,” he said.
Katz said weight and balance issues were part of the reason that the same plane experienced “aircraft structural failure” in a skydiving-related mishap over a California parachute jump site on July 23, 2016.
On June 21 the pilot, three tandem parachute instructors and their three customers, two camera operators plus the two solo jumpers who decided to join the flight at the last minute died after the aircraft crashed at 6:22 p.m.
The Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office has identified the 11 crash victims as Larry Lemaster, 50, James Lisenbee, 48, Jerome Renck, 42, Daniel Herndon, 35, Casey Williamson, 29, Michael Martin, 32, and Jordan Tehero, 23, of Hawaii; Joshua Drablos, 27, a U.S. military member from Virginia stationed in Hawaii; Ashley Weikel, 26, and Bryan Weikel, 27, of Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Nikolas Glebov, 28, of St. Paul, Minn.
U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) said Tuesday that he will introduce a bill in the next month or so related to the Dillingham crash and an April 29 incident where a tour helicopter crashed into a Kailua neighborhood, killing three people.
Case said the bill will focus on “time, place and manner of operations, not specially on the safety side.” He said that he plans to meet with senior leadership from the Federal Aviation Administration in the next few weeks to urge them to increase safety regulations to comply fully with the NTSB’s 2008 Special Investigation Report on the Safety of Parachute Jump Operations.
Immediately following the Dillingham incident, which was the worst U.S. civilian aircraft crash since 2011, the NTSB again urged the FAA, which adopted only a portion of the 2008 recommendations, to categorize parachuting service operators in a way that requires their planes to undergo more extensive maintenance and inspections. In its 2008 safety recommendation letter to the FAA, the NTSB noted that there were 32 accidents in the U.S. involving parachuting operations from 1980 to 2008, which led to 172 deaths.
Case said the cause could prove to be “any number of things, but any number of things could relate to each and all of the areas where NTSB made specific recommendations to FAA that weren’t followed.”
He noted several takeaways from NTSB’s preliminary report. First, the crash didn’t appear to be weather-related. Second, two people jumped onto the plane at the last minute, which could have contributed to weight and balance issues. Third, the aircraft did not have an FAA-issued certificate of operation, which Case said was not required in this case but in his view should have been.
Meanwhile, KHON-TV reported that the state Department of Transportation issued the Oahu Parachute Center a cease and desist order in April, concerning business and aircraft registration issues. According to the television station, the company was told Monday to vacate its facility at Dillingham Airfield.
Shelly Kunishige, Transportation Department spokeswoman, declined to confirm Tuesday whether the department issued the notice or whether the company left the facility.
“I am not authorized to comment on the situation at this time,” Kunishige said.
Multiple calls Tuesday to Oahu Parachute went straight to voicemail, and the mailbox for voice messages was full.
Mokuleia Preliminary Crash Report by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd