Alaskan plane crash survivors say cargo door swung open

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Survivors of this weekend's airplane crash in Alaska, United States say they saw the forward cargo door of their Piper Piper PA-31 Navajo Chieftain swing open shortly after takeoff. The plane crashed into frigid waters a short distance from the runway, killing six of the ten on board, including the pilot, and leaving the other four hospitalized.

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the accident, and NTSB investigator Clint Johnson said "There have been some incidents and accidents that did result from the door coming open. We don't know yet if there are similarities." He refused to speculate on accident cause, pointing out that a full investigation would take some time to complete.

The remains of the fuselage have been laid out in a maintenance hangar close to the Kodiak Island accident site and is scheduled for examination tomorrow pending arrival of an accident investigation representative from Piper, who will provide detailed technical assistance. The nine-passenger complement had chartered the Servant Air plane to fly to Homer, and represented maximum capacity for the twin-engined plane.

It appears that the survivors were seated at the rear of the plane. The deceased were identified as pilot Robin Starrett, 50, of Kodiak and five Homer residents - Stefan F. Basargin, 36, Pavel F. Basargin, 30, Zahary F. Martushev, 25, Iosif F. Martushev, 15, and Andrian Reutov, 22. The survivor's names have now also been released; they are Karnely Ivanov, 32, of Anchor Point, Feodot Basargin, 33, of Anchorage, Anton Rijkoff, 30, of Anchorage, and Andrean Basargin, 25, of Homer.

There have been two previous cases of Alaskan Piper Navajo crashes confirmed to have been caused by open forward cargo hatches. In April 1990 a compartment opened during takeoff from Deadnight; this caused separation of an engine cover which proceeded to strike and damage the horizontal stabilizer. No-one was injured.

It was discovered that a vital spring designed to exert pressure and thus keep the door shut was missing; the operator had improvised its own device to shut the door without correctly locking it.

The second crash occurred in May 1996. A Cape Smythe Air Services owned-and-operated aircraft attempting takeoff at Point Hope had its forward door unexpectedly open as the nose lifted off. Cargo went through the left propeller, forcing an emergency crash landing on the ice severely injuring two people.

The pilot had loaded the hold and then visually inspected the door. Under the false impression that it had been secured properly he proceeded to takeoff. He had originally attempted to turn the aircraft around and told the NTSB he had thought that the aircraft should have been able to fly despite the open door, although he appreciated aircraft documentation did not specifically mention such conditions.

Small, local-based Servant Air had been operating the 1979 aircraft since 2004 without any difficulties. As with many such carriers, the pilot is responsible for loading and checking the door. The door is approximately 3 1/2 feet wide and 2 1/2 feet high.