An initial report on a midair collision over the Mat-Su last week, which left a Wasilla pilot dead, includes a grim account of the seconds before impact from the surviving pilot.

The National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report Thursday on the June 13 crash above the Susitna River which claimed 56-year-old James Poelman’s life. Poelman had been flying a Cessna 207 for air taxi service Spernak Airways on a trip from Anchorage’s Merrill Field to Tyonek when his plane collided with a Cessna 175. That plane was able to make an emergency landing at the Lake Hood airstrip in Anchorage.

The surviving pilot, named by Alaska State Troopers as 53-year-old Bruce Markwood of Anchorage, had been flying from a remote fishing camp to Lake Hood. He told the NTSB that he had been flying level at about 1,000 feet; just before the crash at about noon, he was in radio contact with the pilot of a Piper Super Cub passing below him to maintain separation between their aircraft.

When Markwood looked down to see the Super Cub pass, he also saw “the shadow of an opposite direction airplane converging with the shadow of his airplane.”

“Alarmed, he looked forward and saw the spinner of a converging airplane in his windscreen, and he said that he immediately pulled aft on the control yoke,” investigators wrote. “The pilot said that his airplane climbed abruptly just before the two airplanes collided.”

After Poelman’s plane slammed into the mouth of the river, Markwood circled the scene several times as he checked for survivors and called other pilots for help. A floatplane pilot was later able to land on the river and confirm that Poelman had died in the crash.

Markwood flew on to Lake Hood, where he was able to land with only one main landing gear – a scene caught on video by pilot and KTVA viewer Matt Tomter.

 
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According to radar data from the Federal Aviation Administration, tracks believed to be the planes involved converged on the crash site at an altitude of 1,000 feet above sea level. The radar track believed to be Poelman’s plane descended to about 875 feet then climbed to 900 feet, investigators wrote, “just before the targets appeared to merge.”

Clint Johnson, the NTSB’s Alaska chief, said Thursday that the crash occurred in uncontrolled airspace – where the primary rule for all aircraft is “see and avoid.”

“It’s incumbent on the pilot to see and avoid other traffic,” Johnson said.

Investigators are still tracking down communications from both aircraft involved in the crash. Johnson said Markwood had been using a common traffic advisory frequency to speak with the Super Cub he passed just before the collision, but only parts of the fuselage and wings from Poelman’s plane were recovered from the river.

Johnson said that the FAA and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association had formed a working group several years ago to streamline traffic frequencies over the Mat-Su, after a 2011 midair collision near Trapper Creek which left a family of four dead.

“That is one of the things that we’re going to be looking at in this crash,” Johnson said. “We honestly don’t know at this point what frequency the (Cessna) 207 was on.”

Johnson urged anyone who was in the air on the day of the crash and had radio contact with Markwood or Poelman to call the Anchorage NTSB office at 907-782-4849 or email eyewitnessreport@ntsb.gov, if they haven’t already been contacted.

“Unfortunately those frequencies are not recorded, so in this case we have to go to the earwitnesses,” Johnson said.

Blind spots on both aircraft, as well as their navigation and anti-collision lights, will also be a focus of the NTSB investigation as the planes are brought to a Wasilla hangar for further analysis.

“What we try to do to is reassemble both aircraft, to try to understand how they came together,” Johnson said.

Thursday's report was the first of three the NTSB files in most crash investigations, to be followed by a factual report and one determining the crash's probable cause. Those can take a year or more to be completed.

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