SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Airport Jet Crash was 35 years ago
One died when Alaska Airlines 727 careened off Ketchikan runway


April 05, 2011
Tuesday AM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska -  Airplane crashes are not an uncommon occurrence around Ketchikan, but the one that happened on April 5, 1976, 35 years ago this week, was one of the most spectacular. As shocked local residents watched, an Alaska Airlines 727 landed in inclement weather and then went careening off the end of the runway and exploded into flames in a ravine near Government Creek.

Surprisingly, there was only a single fatality, Ruth Foster, 85, of Nyssa, Oregon, amongst the 50 passengers and crew, primarily because of quick action by passengers and other responders. The jet was destroyed by the fire.

jpg Airport Jet Crash was 35 years ago

Crash of Alaska Airline in Ketchikan on April 5, 1976
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums

Eventually, federal government investigators would determine that the pilot made several errors that caused the accident.

The crash was witnessed by dozens of local residents, according to the Ketchikan Daily News. The witnesses differed on just where the plane touched down. Some said it still had its landing gear up when it passed the terminal. But others said it appeared that the front of the plane was rising into the air at that point as the pilot was trying to take off again. One of the plane’s wings hit a navigation platform as the jet went off the runway and landed in a ravine 700 feet from the end of the runway.

Almost immediately after the crash, air taxis and helicopters and other responders were on their way to the crash scene, the newspaper reported.  Fireboats and both airport ferries also responded.

Carl Constantine, a Coast Guardsman on the flight, told the Daily News that the plane seemed to be landing “fast.”

“We bounced a couple of times and I knew something was wrong,” he said. “Then we hit the end.”

Constantine told the newspaper that he was able to get out of the plane fairly quickly because he was sitting near where the fuselage broke and was not seriously injured. He said the fire erupted soon after the crash, near the center of the plane, but that most passengers were able to get out ahead of the conflagration.

Another passenger, William Russell, told the Daily News that when the plane hit the end of the runway “It felt like we were floating and then we bellied down.”  Russell said the belly landing probably saved many lives.

Ketchikan resident Glen Scott told the Daily News the crash occurred so fast there was almost no time to panic on the plane.

“It wasn’t a hysterical type of Hollywood thing,” he said. He stated there was moaning from the injured passengers immediately after the crash but no screaming. Like Constantine, Scott said that most of the people were able to get out before the fire started.

Another Ketchikan resident on the flight, Orvel Holum, said he had sensed the plane was going to crash and braced himself but that the crash happened too quickly to do anything more.

Two Southern Baptist clergy returning from a Juneau revival, Daniel Hood and A.D. Smith, told the Daily News there wasn’t even time to pray before the crash.

Coast Guard Captain William Bickford , another passenger on the flight, said that a small stream in the ravine helped by carrying away much of the aviation fuel, thus preventing an even more disastrous outcome.

Bickford was later awarded the Coast Guard Medal for his heroism during the crash.  According to his medal citation he returned again and again to the burning aircraft to evacuate passengers and help the injured despite the fact that his own clothing was soaked with fuel and could have easily caught fire. He was still at the plane when the fire crews arrived and he helped direct them to the cockpit where they were able to keep the flames at bay long enough for the crew to be extricated nearly half an hour after the crash.

Local pilots Allen Zink, Chuck Slagle, Dave Mahre and Kevin Hack were also credited by the Daily News for helping to get the seriously injured crew members out of the plane by using axes to break through the cockpit walls. A passenger on the plane, John Lauritzen, actually walked up to the airport, got grabbed an axe and returned to the cockpit area to help, according to Barbara May, an airport customer service agent.

The one passenger killed in the crash was in a wheelchair and had been seated near the galley, a part of the plane that was crushed during the crash. When rescuers combed the plane they didn’t see her under the debris, the Daily News reported. She was initially reported as missing; and then her body was found after the fire was extinguished.

The National Transportation Safety Board report released seven months later on December 22nd, determined that the crash was the result of Captain Richard L. Burke’s “faulty judgment in initiating a go-around after he was committed to a full-stop landing following an excessively long and fast touchdown from an unstabilized approach.”

The NTSB also said that the “pilot’s unprofessional decision to abandon the precision approach” contributed to the accident.

The flight had departed Juneau at 7:38 am enroute to Seattle with a stop in Ketchikan. At 8:05, the plane was some 30 miles north of Ketchikan and the Anchorage traffic control center advised the pilot to continue his instrument approach to Ketchikan. The Ketchikan flight service center reported a cloud ceiling of 800 feet, two miles of visibility, light snow, fog and 5 knots of wind. The flight service center also advised the pilot that braking conditions on the runway were “poor.” Captain Burke later testified that he didn’t hear the braking warning.  But at least one other member of the crew testified that he had heard it.

As the plane approached over Guard Island, Captain Burke switched from instrument flight rules (IFR) to visual flight rules (VFR). He later testified that when the plane had descended to 1,000 feet he had “a visual glide slope of my own” and that his eyes were “the most reliable thing I have.” He said the airport was visible shortly after that point.

The pilot estimated that he touched down about 1,500 feet past the leading edge of the runway and found the runway “was just wet.”

After touching down, the Captain deployed the “ground spoilers,” reversed the engines, and applied the brakes. He quickly determined the aircraft probably would not stop in time and decided instead to execute a “go around” or a takeoff from the remaining part of the runway. He said he was aware that an Alaska Airlines pilot had successfully executed a similar maneuver at the Ketchikan Airport several months previously prior in similar conditions.

But, Captain Burke testified, he couldn’t get the engines to respond quickly enough to get the plane airborne again.

According to the NTSB report, several passengers on the flight “anticipated the accident because of the high speed of the aircraft after touchdown and the lack of deceleration.”

Two ground witnesses, who were pilots, also reported to the NTSB that all of the plane’s landing gear wasn’t down until the plane was nearly 3,000 feet down the runway, nearly half of its 7,500 foot length. They also expressed the opinion that the landing was “fast.”  The black box recording showed the jet was traveling at approximately 145 knots just before touchdown. Other witnesses at the airport said the touchdown occurred between one-quarter and one-half way down the runway.

jpg Crash of Alaska Airlines

Crash of Alaska Airline in Ketchikan on April 5, 1976
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums

The captain’s attempt to “go around” was unsuccessful, and the jet crashed in a ravine 700 feet beyond the end of the runway. The crash occurred at 8:19 am.

According to Alaska Airlines records, Captain Burke – who had been with the airline since 1960, had flown into Ketchikan more than 50 times prior to the accident.

The plane broke into three sections on impact with the two breaks occurring just forward and aft of the wings. Later examinations of the engines, brakes and other systems showed no pre-impact failures.

Captain Burke suffered multiple fractures to his legs and ribs and was initially in critical condition.  The first officer, Richard Bishop, suffered skull, leg, rib and spinal fractures, the second officer, Huston Leach, suffered multiple spinal fractures.  Both were in serious condition and all three were medivaced to Seattle. At least one flight attendant suffered rib fractures. Injuries among the passengers included spinal, leg and rib fractures among other injuries. The one passenger who died, Ruth Foster, died on impact - and not in the resulting fire - according to the NTSB.

The plane’s location made it almost impossible for the airport fire equipment to reach it. A makeshift handline was installed to get suppressant foam on the burning plane, which had more than 28,000 gallons of aviation fuel on board when it crashed. Fire equipment from Ketchikan arrived at 8:40 am, and help was also provided by the Coast Guard and Ketchikan Fire Department fireboats.

Later, the investigation determined that the Borough “had taken too lightly” the management of the airport and had not provided proper safety planning or fire training for the airport employees. By May of 1976, the FAA surveyed the airport again and determined that the areas of “non compliance” had been addressed.

Overall, the NTSB determined that the accident proved “survivable” primarily because the way the plane crashed led to numerous ways of quick escape for passengers and crew. The board also said the evacuation was aided by the fact that several Coast Guard and National Guard personnel, with years of professional training, were on the flight.

The NTSB determined that the pilot’s landing approach did not conform to Alaska Airlines’ procedures for visual or instrument landings and that the landing gear was not down early enough. The angle of descent into the airport was steeper than recommended, as well, the board stated.

“For the existing weather and runway conditions, the Safety Board believes the Captain of Flight 60 should have elected to execute a precision ILS approach,” the report noted. “The added stability with better airspeed control should have assured a safe landing at or near the normal touchdown point and at or near the reference airspeed (120 knots).”

The NTSB also faulted the Captain’s use of the thrust reversers.

“However, once the Captain applied reverse thrust, he was committed to keeping the aircraft on the ground and completing the landing roll out,” the report concluded. “In spite of the long and fast touchdown, the Safety Board believes that the aircraft could have been successfully stopped with the normal use of spoilers, reverse thrust and wheel brakes.”

The board was left with one significant puzzle according to the report.

“Why would a highly experienced and qualified captain deviate from prescribed procedures and exercise faulty judgment to the extent that he did in this case and why would two other crewmembers fail to take more positive and timely action to alter the course of events?”

The board then surmised that a physical reason might have clouded the judgment of Captain Burke, who had more than 19,000 flight hours and more than 2,100 hours in B- 727s.

Several months before the accident, medical tests showed he was potentially “hypoglycemic” and in a pre-diabetic state. He reported to investigators that he had had nothing to eat – only coffee – for 13 hours before the flight and “the board believes that 13 hours without food intake could lower the blood sugar level in a healthy person to the degree that his efficiency could be adversely affected.” Another potential factor the report cited: a post-crash test indicated that Captain Burke’s hearing was below the accepted threshold for commercial pilots.

Captain Burke, then 55 years-old, retired from Alaska Airlines not long after the accident.

Another factor that concerned the board was the lack of action on the part of the other crew members. First Officer Richard Bishop had spent almost a decade with Alaska Airlines and had more than 3,100 flight hours including nearly 2,000 in 727s. Second officer Huston Leach had also worked for the airline nearly a decade and had 3,400 flight hours and 2,600 in 727s.

Both suffered serious injuries and had some difficulty remembering all the details of the approach. Among the recommendations by the safety board was that crew members need to be more assertive if they witness unusual behavior by the captain.

Although the report noted the runway was not particularly long, it determined that the jet should have had plenty of stopping distance under normal circumstances.

In 2009, nearly 30 years after the crash, the FAA improved the safety margins at Ketchikan International Airport by adding 2000 feet to the runway. The nearly $40 million runway extension covered up the ravine that was the final resting place of the Boeing 727, N124AS, that was Alaska Airlines Flight 60.

Edited by: Dennis Doland

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