WASHINGTON — The Alaska plane crash that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens and four others in August 2010 may have been caused by the pilot's temporary unresponsiveness, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.
Although pilot Terry Smith had suffered a stroke in 2006, the reason for his unresponsiveness "could not be established from the available information," the board found. Investigators ruled out weather conditions or mechanical problems as the cause of the plane's crash into a remote mountainside, but they were unable to pinpoint an exact reason.
The board's chairwoman, Deborah A.P. Hersman, apologized for such a vague finding, saying that while she was proud of the work that NTSB investigators did, it was unusual not to have settled on the exact cause of an accident. It's especially disappointing for the families, Hersman said.
But she also said that part of the legacy of Stevens, a former World War II pilot, was improving aviation safety, especially in the aviation-dependent state he represented in the U.S. Senate for 40 years.
The board voted to recommend that the Federal Aviation Administration be clearer about its guidelines for issuing medical certifications to pilots who've had strokes. In its investigative findings, the NTSB determined that the flight surgeon who issued a medical certificate should have taken into consideration Smith's family history, the possibility of another stroke and the loss of cognitive function he experienced after the first stroke.
The NTSB also suggested that the FAA have clear and specific requirements for medical evaluations that would assess not only the adverse consequences of a stroke, but also the risk of another one.
One of the crash's survivors, lawyer James Morhard, said he'd expected some conclusive evidence that would determine what caused the accident.
"It's disappointing that they didn't," he said. "I think a reasonable person would say we should have been able to get from the lodge to the fishing camp. And we didn't. But I also respect the process and I know they made every effort."
Four people survived the crash, including former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe. They were among eight guests at a General Communications Inc. lodge, and at the time of the accident were flying about 52 miles away to a salmon fishing camp.
Killed were Stevens, 86; Smith, 62; Bill Phillips Sr., a lobbyist; Dana Tindall, 48, an executive with GCI; and Tindall's 16-year-old daughter, Corey Tindall.
Morhard said he thought each day about those who'd lost their lives.
"There were some great losses on that plane," Morhard said. "I'm still dealing with that."
Stevens was one of two survivors of a 1978 plane crash in Anchorage that killed his wife, Ann, and several others. His second wife, Catherine, and their daughter, Lily, attended Tuesday's hearing. Catherine Stevens spoke extensively with Hersman after the hearing.
Smith, a 28-year veteran of Alaska Airlines, was considered an experienced pilot and came from a family of fliers, including his father. His wife, Terri Ellis Smith, is a pilot, and so is one of their sons.
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