NTSB report says the pilots obstructed views probably led to the mid-air collision that killed a Beaverton man and forced the emergency landing of a twin-engine plane

A federal agency has ruled that the October 2011 mid-air collision that took the life of a retired state trooper was likely due to both pilots’ inability to see each other in the critical seconds before the two private aircraft collided southeast of Newberg.

The National Transportation Safety Board report, released last week, didn’t assign blame to either student pilot Henrik Kalberg, 23, of Holmestrand, Norway, or seasoned pilot Steve Watson, 58, of Beaverton. Watson died when his 1966 Beech Bonanza V35 collided with the twin-engine 1978 Piper Seminole that Kalberg was training in with flight instructor Travis Thompson, 31, of Beaverton.

Watson’s plane, according to the NTSB report, broke into three pieces and crashed to the ground near Wilsonville Road across the Willamette River from Champoeg State Heritage Area, in the park itself and in a nearby field. Watson was a 26-year veteran of the Oregon State Police who retired in 2002 and had worked since then as the assistant director of public safety at the University of Portland. He left behind a wife and two grown daughters.

Pilots’ experience

Having amassed more than 2,250 total flight hours, Watson held a private pilot’s certificate to fly multi-engine aircraft and a commercial pilot’s certificate to fly single engine aircraft, as well as a flight instructor certificate for single- and multi-engine aircraft and an instrument flight rating. The only proviso attached to his last medical certificate, issued in March 2011, was that he “must have available glasses for near vision.”

Kalberg, 23, held a private pilot certificate and an instrument flight rating for single-engine planes. He had 55 total flight hours at the time of the crash and his medical status was clear, the NTSB report said.

Responding to crash

Personnel from the Newberg Fire Department were dispatched to the scene at about 4:15 p.m. that day to two sites: one about a mile west of Champoeg State Heritage Area and one in the 35000 block of Wilsonville Road. Fire personnel could see a column of black smoke when they left Newberg, Chief Les Hallman said in a 2011 newspaper story and responded to the Wilsonville Road site to find the wreckage of a plane on fire in a small wooded ravine about 30 yards off the road.

Firefighters doused the flames from the aircraft and shifted into rescue mode, Hallman said, but did not find any survivors. “The fire was not complicated to extinguish,” he said. Large nearby Douglas fir trees were scorched but were not aflame when firefighters arrived, he added.

Kalberg and Thompson walked away from the other crash scene with no injuries after Thompson performed an emergency landing in a nearby grass seed field.

Debris from the crash was strewn for more than two miles — with parts from both aircraft, including the tail assembly and rear seat from the Beech and the nose cowling from the Piper — landing in the campground at Champoeg. That prompted officials to relocate campers and cordon off the area and keep it closed for several days. One six-foot section of the Beech found near the wreckage of the Piper revealed some clues that would later prove important to determining what happened on that sunny fall morning.

NTSB investigation revealed

The NTSB’s investigation of more than 21 months — aided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), local law enforcement agencies and the Piper company — concluded that both pilots’ views of the area around them was obstructed by parts of their aircraft. Evidence to support that conclusion came via an examination of both planes, done in July 2012 at an air services company in Dallas. The evidence from the piece of the Beech found in the field near the Piper indicated that Watson’s plane was ascending and struck the bottom of the Piper, sheering off much of the top and the tail assembly of the Beech. Without the tail section the plane would have been impossible to fly.

Pilots, instructor statements

Statements made the day of the crash to the NTSB by Kalberg and Thompson revealed some details in the aftermath of the crash and painted a picture of two pilots, confronting the possibility of crashing, relying on their training to work toward a safe landing.

“T.J. (Thompson) makes a call to Aurora with position and let them know we are inbound,” Kalberg wrote in his statement, released by the NTSB last week. “While he is talking, I’m adding power and that’s when we hit something — everything is shaking.”

“We then suddenly experienced a violent impact-loud noise, followed by an uncommanded yaw to the left,” said Thompson, who said early in the investigation that he thought the plane may have hit some geese. “I immediately (took) the controls from the student, saying, ‘my controls.’”

“T.J. takes all control early and turns toward a field. We have no electricity and (the) radio is not working. T.J. tells me to try to get the radio working,” Kalberg wrote. “No. 1, check avionics master. Master switch (operating). Still no power.”

“I controlled the aircraft the best I could and immediately turned in a southwest direction away from population,” Thompson wrote. “The aircraft controls at this point were extremely sluggish. … (I) quickly realized I could only keep a somewhat controlled descent.”

“T.J. checking if gear is down; lever was in down position, but nothing happened,” Kalberg wrote. “I checked the mirror and there was no nose wheel out. We were low and decided we had to land without gear.”

“When I was sure we could make the landing site I attempted putting the landing gear down with no luck,” Thompson wrote. “I decided to focus solely on flying the aircraft and make the safest landing possible. I touched down softly as possible, nose high to prevent any sort of cartwheel result.”

“They got the airplane down … and they were able to walk away,” said Josh Cawthra, lead investigator for the NTSB.

Chase Whitney, a private pilot flying a Cessna 172 out of Pearson Airpark in Vancouver, Wash., was in the area where the collision occurred. After flying with a passenger to McMinnville Airport for a touch-and-go maneuver, he headed east and reported to the NTSB that he noticed the Piper descend quickly, then level off before seeing the Beech nearby at a lower elevation.

“In the vicinity of McGee private airport (west of Aurora Airport) I immediately recognized a large amount of white debris in the air at approximately my 10 to 11 o’clock position, maybe 1,000 feet or more below and two miles (out),” Whitney said in his report. “I saw two distinct aircraft exiting the convergence. The single engine airplane was obviously disabled and was in a steep rotational descent until impacting the ground north of the Willamette River. The twin engine aircraft was still airborne and descending to the west in what appeared to (be) preparation for an emergency landing.”

Rules of the air

The collision took place in an area not under the purview of air traffic control at nearby airports in Aurora or Hillsboro. Instead, according to the NTSB, pilots in that area are required to fly by visual flight rules (VFR), meaning they are responsible for “maintaining separation” from other aircraft and the ground without the aid of instruments. The report indicated that both planes were outside what the FAA calls a “high intensity flight training area.” Neither plane was equipped with radar, although both aircraft had radio access to air traffic facilities in Portland and Seattle to monitor other planes in the area.

“It is part of the pilot’s role to be aware of other aircraft,” Cawthra said.

Information recovered from flight recorders on both aircraft revealed that in the minutes leading up to the crash Watson’s Beech was traveling in a northeastern direction at an altitude of 2,400 feet; Kalberg’s Piper was flying at 2,800 feet, traveling in roughly the same direction, and was just west of the Beech.

Ultimately, the NTSB report doesn’t assign any blame to the parties involved in the crash, basing its conclusion on “the planes’ respective positions as well as their respective courses and speed.”

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