Slow airspeed blamed in '09 crash that killed Navy aviator, daughters

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 9, 2012 

WASHINGTON — An enduring mystery will enshroud the May 22, 2009, plane crash that killed veteran Navy aviator Lt. Commander Luther H. Hook III and his three daughters.

In a long-awaited final report, federal investigators this week concluded Hook's plane crashed because it fatally slowed while landing amidst stiff winds at Fallon, Nev. The precise reason why, though, remains unknown.

"The pilot's inadequate airspeed...resulted in an aerodynamic stall," the National Transportation Safety Board concluded in a final report officially adopted Thursday.

Clovis, Calif., residents Kaitlyn Elizabeth Hook, 15, Rachel Katherine Hook, 12, and Mackenzie Elena Hook, 9, died in the Memorial Day weekend crash, along with the 44-year-old pilot.

The nearly three-year investigation lasted longer than most safety board probes into fatal aviation accidents, which more typically take 18 months to two years. The final report on a fatal plane crash in New Mexico that killed two on the same day as the Fallon accident, for instance, was wrapped up last June.

Despite the extended time, investigators couldn't pin down exactly how it was that one of the Navy's high-speed fighter pilots allowed his civilian plane to stall. The probable cause report made final this week simply noted the available evidence "could be consistent" with a stall and subsequent loss of control.

Investigators, moreover, avoided loaded terms such as "error" or "mistake" in their final report.

"No anomalies or other conditions were found with either engine that would have precluded normal operation," the safety board added.

Hook's fellow Navy aviators, who called him by the nickname "Meat," knew him as someone supremely prepared to handle flight risk.

A 1986 Naval Academy graduate, Hook was serving as the executive officer of Naval Air Station Fallon at the time of the accident. He had accumulated more than 3,235 hours of flight time, many of them in the Navy's screamingly fast F/A-18 Hornet, which can approach twice the speed of sound.

During his career, Hook had served at Naval Air Station Lemoore in the San Joaquin Valley and had deployed on four different aircraft carriers. He had been awarded, among other decorations, the Air Medal for his combat service in Iraq.

On the day of the accident, he had flown his twin-engine Cessna 320 from Nevada to pick up his daughters from Clovis, where they lived with their mother, Brenda Hook, and stepfather, Pat Doles. Hook was living in Fallon at the time with his second wife, Wende, and their two young daughters.

Hook and his daughters took off from Fresno Yosemite International Airport about 6:30 p.m. About an hour later, investigators found, he radioed ground controllers that he had Fallon Municipal Airport in sight. Winds were blowing about 25 knots with gusts up to about 36 knots, which is enough to make trees sway

"He was flying in a good, controlled manner, and I was thinking how much fun it would be to fly one of them," one witness, Fallon resident Hal David Boehm, told investigators.

Witnesses told investigators that they saw the plane make a right turn to establish a downwind approach, then they saw it make a sharp left turn and descend out of sight.

"(I saw) a huge amount of black smoke, and I notified two daughters at my residence to get medical equipment...and call 911," Fallon resident Louis Madraso told investigators.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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