FAA told crashed Hawaii plane landed
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor
By Christie Wilson
A mail cargo plane that crashed into the ocean Monday about seven miles southeast of Lihu'e Airport mistakenly was reported to have landed safely, contributing to a delay in rescue efforts.
Federal Aviation Administration attempts to locate the Alpine Air twin-engine turboprop Beechcraft King Air 1900 also were made difficult by the early hour of the ill-fated flight, said FAA Western-Pacific Region spokesman Ian Gregor.
The plane is believed to have made a sudden descent and disappeared off FAA radar at 5:08 a.m. Monday when it was flying about 100 feet above the water. Aircraft approaching the Kaua'i airport at that point normally would be flying at an altitude of 1,500 feet, Gregor said.
A compact debris field in the ocean at the site of the aircraft's last known position suggests a violent impact, and officials indicated it is doubtful pilot Paul Akita, 38, of Honolulu, would have survived the crash.
The Coast Guard yesterday suspended the search for Akita, who was the lone occupant of the Alpine Air cargo plane carrying about 4,200 pounds of mail on a regularly scheduled flight between Honolulu and Kaua'i.
Rescue crews recovered parts of the plane, 45 bags of mail, an inflated life raft, a shoe and a flight bag, but air and sea searches Monday and yesterday failed to locate the pilot, said Coast Guard Lt. John Titchen.
He said the Coast Guard had "exhausted" the search area, with aircraft and vessels "scouring" a 200-square-mile grid based on wind and sea currents. The search was suspended at 2 p.m. yesterday after no additional debris had been found since early morning.
The Alpine Air flight departed Honolulu at 4:43 a.m. Monday and was scheduled to arrive at Lihu'e at 5:15 a.m. Officials said Akita did not issue a mayday call before hitting the water, and that the emergency locating transmitter aboard the aircraft was not activated by the crash.
Gregor said the FAA radar station in Honolulu tracked the cargo plane for the first part of its flight. However, because the Lihu'e air traffic control tower doesn't open until 6 a.m., Akita was instructed to make a visual approach into the airport and follow an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 jet flying ahead of him, Gregor said.
Akita also was instructed to contact the FAA once he landed. "At that time, we stopped positively tracking the flight by radar from Honolulu, which is a standard procedure," Gregor said.
When the FAA didn't hear from the pilot, the agency tried to contact Alpine officials in Honolulu and Utah to see if their pilot had communicated with them, but no one answered the phone, Gregor said.
At 5:21 a.m., the FAA contacted the Aloha pilot who had landed at Lihu'e just before Akita's plane was to have arrived, and asked him if the cargo plane was there. The Aloha pilot apparently mistook another Beechcraft King Air for the Alpine Air plane and told the FAA that the cargo flight had landed safely, Gregor said.
When Alpine officials notified the FAA that the plane was missing, the federal agency alerted the Coast Guard's Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Honolulu, Gregor said.
COAST GUARD CALLED
Titchen said the Coast Guard received a call from the FAA at 6:45 a.m., and after confirming the information, deployed two HH-65 Dolphin helicopters and a C-130 search plane from Barbers Point Air Station at 6:59 a.m. The Coast Guard Kaua'i Station launched its 25-foot boat two minutes later.
Searchers spotted debris from the crash at 8:50 a.m. Also participating in Coast Guard search efforts were the 87-foot patrol boat Kittiwake from Nawiliwili and the 225-foot buoy tender Walnut.
Coast Guard crews reported improved search conditions yesterday, with seas at 4 to 6 feet and easterly winds of 15 knots. Conditions were considerably worse Monday, with winds of 25 knots and 20-foot seas.
The debris from the downed plane was taken to Nawiliwili Harbor to be transferred to officials of the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board, who will investigate the cause of the crash.
Postal Service spokesman Duke Gonzales said about 10 percent of the mail shipment was retrieved, but it was still uncertain how much of it is salvageable. The mailbags are not weatherproof, he said.
Most of the shipment was Priority Mail consisting of parcels and large envelopes, Gonzales said.
Alpine Air, headquartered in Provo, Utah, is subcontracted by Postal Service contractor Corporate Air to fly mail to several destinations within the state, including Moloka'i, Kalaupapa, Lana'i and Waimea on the Big Island.
Alpine Air Hawai'i station manager David Dart said it would be premature to speculate on the cause of the crash, and that the company is cooperating fully with FAA and NTSB investigators.
Akita was one of 10 pilots employed by Alpine Air in Hawai'i and had worked for the company for about three years, Dart said. "He's a first-class guy. We've heard from a lot of people all across the state wishing us well," he said.
"He made many trips over there, and he's flown that aircraft many times," including flights a few days earlier.
Dart described the Honolulu-Lihu'e mail run as "pretty routine."
"We've done it hundreds of times, just like clockwork. It's not a particularly hard approach for us coming in from the east to Lihu'e," he said.
Akita was not married but has a mother and longtime girlfriend. He spoke Japanese and worked off and on for Hawaiian Fire surfing school, started by a group of Honolulu firefighters, since 2004, said operations manager Ryan Miller.
"He was a really light-hearted, easygoing guy. He was always cracking jokes," Miller said.
"His main goal was to become a commercial airline pilot. He always talked about how bad he wanted to do it."
Akita is the second instructor the surfing school has lost in an air crash. Firefighter and surf instructor Daniel Villiaros was killed in a Jan. 31, 2004, crash of a Hawai'i Air Ambulance plane on the Big Island.
Reach Christie Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.