ROD THOMPSON / RTHOMPSON@STARBULLETIN.COM
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jim Struhsaker yesterday pointed to the fuselage of a Cessna 172M that crashed June 17 on Mauna Loa. Investigators had cut into the plane to remove an emergency locator transmitter.
NTSB begins crash probe
HILO » As a Cessna 172M tour plane crashed into thick forest on Mauna Loa June 17, the first thing to go was the tip of its right wing when it hit a tree, a federal inspector said yesterday.
The remainder of the right wing then folded under the Island Hoppers plane while the aircraft rolled over and landed upside down in the forest, National Transportation Safety Board inspector Jim Struhsaker said at a press conference.
The tail nearly separated from the plane but was held in place by cables running from the front to the back.
The pilot and two tourists from Japan were found dead five days after the crash, but Struhsaker couldn't say whether they were killed instantly or survived for a time.
Struhsaker allowed close views of the aircraft but offered no statement on the possible cause of the accident.
The remnants of the plane were brought to a Civil Air Patrol hangar Friday at Hilo Airport, and the real investigation just got under way yesterday, conducted by about nine specialists flown in by the Federal Aviation Administration as well as the NTSB, Struhsaker said.
"We have a team going over it, looking for abnormalities," he said.
There was no need to hurry because the pieces of the plane were preserved and information like weather data from radar and satellites was archived, he said.
The major difficulty was in getting the pieces of the plane out of the forest at the 5,200-foot elevation on the east side of Mauna Loa. The thickness of the vegetation at the site was "amazing," he said. Because of that and cloudy weather that built up each day, it was a "rather high-risk setting," he said.
Three Fire Department personnel suspended by ropes were lowered to the site to recover the bodies and the plane.
To get the plane out of the forest, the recovery crew had to cut off the left wing and remove the engine.
The result was a cockpit without a roof, exposed like a convertible, with the instrument panel and wiring left dangling loosely.
As many as 10 different factors might have contributed to the accident, Struhsaker said. Sorting everything out will result in a "factual" report several months from now, and a final report as much as a year or more from now, he said.
Struhsaker suggested people should not be put off by the accident. "Overall, the (tour) industry in Hawaii is very, very good," he said.
This plane had circled the island as often as three times a day for years and was checked and inspected repeatedly. "They're babied," he said.