By PAULA WILMOT
Tribune Staff Writer
In their second week of mourning for the crew lost in the Feb. 6 Mercy Flight crash, Great Falls residents wonder what went wrong to cause the plane to plow into rugged terrain a few miles short of its destination. The preliminary report released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board offers some answers, although it doesn’t pinpoint a cause for the crash near Bozeman.
The investigation is likely to take six to eight months before a final report is released, according to Dennis Hogenson, the man in charge. Investigations usually take about six months, he said. This one is complicated by weather.
Hogenson was on the scene the morning after the crash and spent a few days at the site in the Horseshoe Hills northwest of Belgrade’s Gallatin Field, the airport that serves Bozeman. After snow buried evidence he needed to recover, Hogenson returned to the Seattle NTSB office, where he is reviewing flight data, weather information and other records. “Because of the weather, I suspect it will take another month before I can get back to the site,” Hogenson said Thursday.
The Benefis Healthcare Mercy Flight Beech 200 King Air fixed-wing plane was headed to Bozeman to pick up a patient. The pilot, Vince Kirol, 59, and two crew members, flight nurse Darcy Dengel, 27, and paramedic Paul Erickson, 33, died in the crash. According to preliminary information from the air traffic control tower at Gallatin Field, communication with the pilot was lost shortly after he was cleared for visual approach to the runway.
Although Hogenson is still waiting for the radio transcript, he said: “There was no distress call in any way.” The aircraft didn’t have a flight recorder, he said, adding that one wasn’t required. According to Hogenson, the crash occurred at 9:04 p.m. Four minutes later, the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office received reports of a downed aircraft.
The wreckage was located later that night approximately 100 feet below the peak of a ridge that rose to an elevation of approximately 5,700 feet. Debris was scattered over the crest of the ridge toward the airport for some 500 feet. The scene is about 13 miles northwest of the airport, which is six miles from Bozeman. One engine and its components were recovered last week. The other engine is under at least a foot of snow.
Bozeman had approximately 15 inches of snow on the ground Thursday, with snow showers expected Thursday night and today, according to David Williamson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls. “They usually don’t get the quick melt like we do here,” he said. The temperature in Bozeman Thursday afternoon was 41 degrees, he added. The weather service lacked statistics on snow depth and temperature in the nearby mountains, he said.
Preliminary data from satellite-based flight-tracking equipment indicated that the plane started a descent from 15,000 feet approximately 40 miles north of the airport. According to Hogenson’s preliminary report, the last transmission from the airplane was received approximately six minutes later from the area where the wreckage was found. Asked about the apparent rapid descent of the craft, Hogenson said, “Rapid descent is a relative term.”
Hogenson said this week that he needs more information before he can consider whether ice or mechanical factors contributed to the cause. ” We’re not ruling anything out at this point,” he said. On the night of the crash, witnesses reported seeing a fireball in the sky near the crash scene. Hogenson figures that was probably a ground fire that erupted in the wooded area after the impact.
The flight left at 8:40 p.m. from the Great Falls airport, where instrument flying conditions prevailed with visibility of seven miles and a ceiling of 500 feet, according to the weather service. At 9 p.m. in Bozeman, visual flight conditions prevailed. Hogenson said the air ambulance was operated by Metro Aviation of Shreveport, La., under contract to Benefis Healthcare/Mercy Flight. A call to Metro Aviation wasn’t returned.
Reach Tribune Staff Writer Paula Wilmot at 791-6594, 800-438-6600 or email@example.com.