CLARIFICATION: Alaska Airlines Inc. has protested headlines containing the words "Alaska Airline" over stories about a federal investigation of a commuter carrier, Ryan Air Service. Alaska Airlines is a Seattle-based carrier, not a commuter airline, and not associated with Ryan, which is based in Anchorage. (Published 1/1/88)
The Federal Aviation Administration, citing an apparent pattern of pilot and maintenance violations, yesterday ordered a special investigation of the Alaska commuter airline involved in a crash last month that killed 18 people.
The probe, to begin Tuesday, will include inspection of Ryan Air Service's crew qualifications and testing, airplane maintenance and equipment, company records and operating limitations. In the order, delivered to Ryan executives yesterday, the FAA said it has received information that Ryan "may be unwilling or unable to assure" that its personnel conduct each flight in compliance with regulations.
"We are concerned about their compliance and their record," said Anthony J. Broderick, FAA associate administrator of aviation standards. "But we don't have all the information we need to make a decision on their continued fitness as an operator."
Wilfred Ryan Jr., president of Ryan, said his company welcomes the investigation.
"Our people and individuals from within the company will be very cooperative in assisting the investigation," he said in an interview.
Ryan, largest commuter operator in Alaska, is based in Anchorage and operates scheduled service to 85 communities and villages. The airline was founded in 1959 by Wilfred Ryan Sr. as Unalakleet Air Taxi Service and operated as the family business. The younger Ryan began as a pilot in 1970 and took over as president after his father's death in the late 1970s.
Ryan said the company has 155 full-time employes and operates 32 aircraft in eight "hub" centers, ranging from the remote northwest corner of the state to Kodiak in the more populated southern region.
Since 1980, the airline has been involved in 10 accidents and been cited 22 times for administrative violations ranging from poor record-keeping to failure to overhaul an engine on time. Ryan was fined $9,000 by the FAA in September 1985 for record-keeping violations. Four weeks before the Nov. 23 crash of a twin-engine Beechcraft 1900 at Homer, Alaska, the FAA recommended that the airline pay a $16,500 fine for lapses in pilot training and record-keeping. Broderick said that case will be folded into the new investigation.
The FAA's order came as the National Transportation Safety Board prepared recommendations urging the FAA to review Ryan operations. A spokesman for the NTSB said the agency will not issue recommendations in light of the special FAA review.
Safety board investigators probing the crash of the Beechcraft found that the plane was carrying too much weight in its rear. The plane crashed short of the runway while landing at the Homer Airport southwest of Anchorage.
Investigators say the pilots, who were killed, knew that their cargo load was restricted to 1,100 pounds, but that the copilot asked for 1,500 pounds of cargo and assisted in loading. Cargo recovered from the crash weighed 2,283 pounds, NTSB investigators said.
The load manifest prepared by the crew indicated the plane weighed 15,700 pounds, with 1,450 pounds of cargo. The actual takeoff weight, calculated by investigators, was 17,100 pounds, 9 percent more than shown on the manifest and 3 percent greater than the maximum allowable weight of 16,600 pounds.
The FAA investigation will focus on weight and balance and load manifests, comparing company records to actual flights.
The copilot, Gareth Stoltzfus, has been identified by investigators as director of Ryan's pilot training program, but company officials said that is not true. Stoltzfus was a pilot instructor and an FAA-designated pilot examiner.
"The facilities and airport conditions that exist in rural Alaska are nearly nonexistent," Ryan said. "We have short, unimproved airstrips throughout 95 percent of the state with very few navigation facilities and very few weather-reporting stations. Conditions are extremely primitive compared to what you have in the continental U.S.A."
"Alaska is different," Broderick said. "That doesn't mean you can't expect safe transportation. That's what this investigation is all about. Is this a series of individual, explainable things, or is there a pattern here?"