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One pilot killed as couple collide in midair over Alaska

September 6, 2011 | 12:30 pm

Alaska crash 
The couple were both commercial pilots, and they set off from separate, nearby villages in the remote Alaskan tundra to fly together to the western town of Bethel.

Kristen Sprague, 26, took off in a Ryan Air Cessna 207; her boyfriend Scott Veal, 24, was piloting a Grant Aviation Cessna 208. They dialed in a common radio frequency so they could talk.

It went horribly wrong when Sprague realized she could no longer see Veal.

"She basically said, 'Scott, I can't see you.' He commented something to the effect of, whatever you do, don't pull up,' " Clint Johnson, investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board in Anchorage, said in an interview with The Times. "A couple of seconds later, her right wing was struck by his airplane."

The midair crash Friday was the third over the last two months in Alaska, where small planes are often the only form of transportation linking the hundreds of villages spread out over the state's vast wilderness.

Pilots flying in caravan are relatively common; lakes become crowded in the summer months with float planes carrying tourists and fishermen; talking on a common frequency is usually a reliable safety precaution.

In this case, which happened at 1:35 p.m. after the pilots took off from the villages of Tununak and Toksook Bay, Sprague told Johnson that Veal initially was on her left side, then pulled ahead, gained altitude, and went over the top of her plane to a point where she could no longer see him.

Only a few seconds after Sprague said she couldn't see him, her right wing was struck by the Cessna 208. It was a bad hit: The right aileron, which controls the plane's ability to bank and turn, was severed.

But Veal's plane was damaged even worse, its entire tail and rudder shorn off. "After the impact, the 208 passed underneath the 207, and she was able to look out the side of the airplane and saw him spiraling," Johnson said.

He said the two communicated on the radio as Veal went down, "But I don't really want to comment on that. It's not pretty."

Veal was killed in the crash.

"Kristen said upon impact the plane basically exploded," he said.

Sprague, he said, was able to maintain "minimal control" of her plane and managed to land it safely, pointing it straight ahead in an "uncontrolled descent" into the rolling tundra, landing about 1 1/2 miles from where the 208 crashed.

Sprague was not injured.

Veal was living in Kenai, Alaska, but was from Southern California. His grandfather, Robert Veal, of Winchester, Calif., told the Anchorage Daily News that his grandson had always dreamed of becoming an Alaskan bush pilot.

"It's in the family. His father and myself are both flight instructors," he said.

On July 10, two planes that collided near Lake Clark Pass were both able to land without injuries to the 13 people on board. On July 30, a family of four was killed when their float plane collided with another one near Trapper Creek. The pilot of the other plane survived.

The NTSB is also investigating an Aug. 13 crash near McGrath, Alaska, that killed the 66-year-old pilot of a Cessna 207 and a 52-year-old teacher, though a family of four survived with serious injuries.

Johnson, who also investigated that incident, said in his preliminary report that the plane crashed in mountainous terrain amid low clouds, rain and fog. "This is getting pretty bad," the pilot told  passengers at one point, according to the report.

"The next thing the passenger recalled was looking out the front windscreen, and just before impact, seeing the mountainside suddenly appear out of the fog," the report said.


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Photo: National Transportation Safety  Board investigator Clinton Johnson, left, and Alaska state trooper David Russell at the scene of an Aug. 13 plane crash near McGrath, Alaska. Credit: National Transportation Safety  Board