SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


40 Years ago, 111 died in Alaska Airlines Crash Near Juneau
Company blamed faulty locator beacons, NTSB unable to come up specific crash ‘cause.’


September 07, 2011
Wednesday AM

(SitNews) - Forty years ago on September 4, 1971, the unthinkable happened to Alaska Airlines.

A 727 jet with at least 111 passengers, crashed in the Chilkat Mountains on final approach into Juneau. There were no survivors.

At the time, it was the deadliest crash in U.S. Aviation history.

Flight 1866 had originated in Anchorage with stops in Cordova and Yakutat. After Juneau it as scheduled to fly to Sitka and Seattle.

The crash occurred because the jet “received” the wrong location information and was too low to clear the final mountains in the southern part of Glacier Bay as it approached Juneau.

The final NTSB report didn’t list a specific reason the jet had wrong information. It implied that crew members possibly have misread the cockpit information or inadvertently dialed in the wrong reception.

Some former Alaska Airlines employees believe that a freak atmospheric condition caused the jet to receive the wrong information. They say that later tests confirmed the possibility the jet responded correctly to incorrect information, but by then the investigation was closed and the cause of the crash remained officially “undetermined.”

At any rate, the federal government later changed the way jets receive their location and altitude information heading into Juneau, which is considered one of the most challenging airports to fly into and out of in the country because of the large mountains that ring the community and the often inclement weather that requires pilots to rely, frequently, on their instrument landing systems.

By all accounts, Flight 1866 was a routine flight and its passenger list was a cross section of Alaskans - most from Anchorage - and three dozen passengers from other states as well as Japan. The largest single group on board were 13 students  heading for either Sheldon Jackson College or Mount Edgecomb board school. Several people were returning to Juneau after a successful moose hunt up north and a half dozen moose heads were part of the cargo.

According to a September 5, 1971 story in the Seattle Post Intelligencer the jet was being flown by an experienced crew, Capt. Richard Adams of Portland Oregon had been with Alaska Airlines since 1955. First officer, Leonard Beach of Seattle, who was at the controls when the plane crashed, had been with Alaska Airlines for five years as had flight engineer James Carlson of Seattle. Beach’s wife Cathy was a stewardess on the ill-fated flight.

Later Federal Aviation Administration officials termed the jet’s approach as “precise” meaning that the cockpit crew had expressly followed the directional information it had received. Yet, it had descended to approximately 2,500 feet in altitude when significantly higher mountains remained between it and Juneau. The last communications between Juneau and the cockpit indicated the crew believed it was actually nine miles closer to Juneau than it actually was. Later it was determined that the jet was also some 45 degrees off on its directional approach to the Juneau airport as well.

Descending through heavy fog it hit a mountain, just above Tear Drop Lake, some eighteen miles west of Juneau, at normal descent speed. There was no indication that the crew or the passengers knew what was coming, according the National Transportation Safety Board report.

NTSB officials immediately began testing the equipment used to relay information to the jet and determined that it was working correctly. But information from the jet itself indicated that incorrect information had been received.

“It’s been close to 11 1/2 years now and I’ve been through 44 or 45 accidents and I always knew in my heart what had caused each one,” NTSB inspector Wesley Cowan told the Associated Press in Juneau a month after the accident. “But this one, I just don’t know.”

George Hannan, an electrical theoretician working for the Federal Aviation Administration, told the AP at the same time that he had been sent out to Sisters Island to determine why the jet was 45 degrees “off course.”

“The electronic device at Sisters Island is called a “very high frequency, omnidirectional radio range or VOR,” Steve Weiner of the Associated Press reported on October 22, 1971. “Its signals can be effected by power changes or the presence of various materials nearby. Hannan told the NTSB hearing he had  “drawn a zero.”

But Alaska Airlines employees weren’t so sure.

They began their own investigation, because they felt the evidence indicated a mechanical malfunction rather than the catch-all that the NTSB uses in many crash reports; “pilot error.”

To be sure, the NTSB never expressly blamed “pilot error” in the crash, but the language it used in its final report in 1973, indicated it believed the pilots could have done more to prevent the accident.

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was a display of misleading navigational information concerning the flight’s progress along the localizer course which resulted in a premature descent below obstacle clearance altitude. The origin or nature of the misleading navigational information could not be determined. The Board further concludes that the crew did not use all available navigational aids to check the flight’s progress along the localizer nor were these aids required to be used. The crew also did not perform the required audio identification of the pertinent navigational facilities.”

According to Robert Serling’s 2008 history of Alaska Airlines “Character and Characters,” Alaska Airlines employees immediately focused on the Sisters Island “transmitter.”

“Alaska’s flight operations department, led by (chief pilot) Warren Metzger, tried to establish the FAA’s supposedly accurate VOR as the chief culprit,” Serling wrote. "(the airline) thought the NTSB itself admitted that the crew seemed to have received what it called ‘misleading navigational information'. This at least suggested a faulty localizer beam, a possibility that warranted further investigation. But instead the NTSB was implying that the crew itself might have been responsible for displaying the wrong heading, either through carelessness or from distraction.”

Serling wrote that a month after the crash, the FAA installed a second navigation aid on the approach, a distance measuring device that would give future jets “the exact distance” to the runway. It was the first of many “improvements” over the next three decades.

As both the NTSB and Alaska Airlines continued their investigations, events took a paranormal turn, according to Serling , a noted national aviation writer who – ironically – was the older brother of Rod Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone television series.

“Sometime after the Juneau tragedy… during the course of the investigation a letter arrived at flight operations and was turned over to Warren Metzger,” Serling wrote in 2008. “It was from someone that he and his wife had known casually. Metzger read it in disbelief, yet thought it was intriguing enough and perhaps even important enough to show to someone else, Kay Adams, the grieving widow of Captain Dick Adams.”

The letter was from Mary Ann Elko, a self described spiritual medium.

Elko explained that she often “transcribed” messages from her spiritual contacts in the handwriting of the deceased person and that she was merely relaying what Captain Adams had “dictated.”

The letter included a “signature” from Dick Adams and Kay Adams said it matched her husband’s distinctive signature. Other handwriting experts were less certain.

The message itself was very brief, according to Serling, just indicating that the crew had no idea what happened and was “investigating” and that another letter would follow.

The second letter arrived in early January, 1972. In it “Captain Adams” reported that he had enlisted the help of another deceased pilot – a “Carlos” who had died when his Iberian Airlines jet had crashed into a hill near a lake. That was all the information in the letter but it implied a connection with the Flight 1866 crash.

When the Alaska Airlines investigators, primarily ex navigator Dave Zehrung, researched “Carlos” they found a shocking coincidence.

“The information we got back confirmed the circumstances of the Spanish crash, including that the captain was named Carlos," Zehrung told Serling. “But there was a lot more.”

The Spanish crash had also involved a VOR which had been located on the lake similar to the Sisters Island site. Zehrung told Serling that it was a “mirror image of the Juneau accident.”

In 1972, the NTSB basically closed its investigation of the crash, but Alaska Airlines investigators continued to press their work, according to Serling.

After 3 years, they felt they had narrowed the cause down to Sisters Island location and an unusual weather pattern that created unusually calm conditions – mirror flat – in Lynn Canal on the Labor Day weekend the crash occurred. The conditions were very similar to those that occurred during the Iberia Airlines crash.

Zehrung believed that such “glassy smooth” conditions could cause a false signal, a mirror image one, to bounce off the water and be picked up by the plane and in 1975, he told Serling, he and other investigators recreated the same conditions and came up with the same 45 degree deviation that apparently plagued Flight 1866.

At the time, Alaska Airlines and the Federal Aviation Adminstration were engaged in a lawsuit over the cause of the crash. A special master had been appointed to sort through all the claims and determine liability. Serling wrote that the FAA initially poo-pooed the Alaska Airlines tests as using “Micky Mouse” electronic equipment. The Special Master, according to Serling, ordered new tests with “properly equipped aircraft."

Then the weather refused to cooperate and the new tests were delayed, according to Serling. While investigators were waiting for the weather to calm down and approximate the “glassy” conditions, the FAA settled with Alaska Airlines for $15 million and the legal case was over. The cause of the crash of Flight 1866 would forever be “undetermined.”

In 1994, as part of yet another attempt to improve flight safety in Juneau, the NTSB conducted another review of the 1971 accident. It determined that the plane had definitely received the “wrong” navigational readings, but once again failed to determine why.

In his research on the Alaska Airlines history in the last decade, Serling – who died last year - found out that the letters from Elko were no longer in the company files, having been thrown out during a general “housekeeping” of flight operations files years ago.

There is also one other mystery remaining from the crash of Flight 1866. Just how many people died. Most records of the crash put the number at 111, but Alaska Airlines' own records, according to Serling, show 113.

On the Web:

More Columns by Dave Kiffer

Historical Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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Dave Kiffer ©2011


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