The crash of a private plane into a rugged Wyoming mountain range that killed a Minneapolis man and three of his sons last fall has prompted federal transportation officials to develop safety recommendations designed to fix "disconnects in the system" and prevent a similar tragedy from repeating itself.
The three recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) now await the scrutiny of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is under no fixed timeline to enact or reject them. They are:
• Establish departure procedures at the Jackson Hole airport that more clearly define the safest path to clear the mountains and then enter the charted "aviation highways," rather than leaving determination of that path to the pilot.
• The other two involve modifying air-traffic controllers' software so that alerts to controllers are generated when an aircraft will soon be too low for a given terrain and that the alerts continue even when radar contact is briefly interrupted.
The recommendations are the work of NTSB air-traffic control specialists in Washington, D.C., and Michael Huhn, who heads the NTSB's probe into the crash.
Huhn, who heads the NTSB's western Pacific regional office in San Francisco, said that the FAA approves a solid majority of his agency's recommendations.
However, Huhn cautioned, what the NTSB is proposing does not necessarily mean that any one of these changes could have prevented the Mooney M20J plane from crashing on Oct. 25, killing Bucklin, 40, his 14-year-old twins Nate and Nick, and 12-year-old Noah.
Still, "it's safe to say there were disconnects in the system" at the time Bucklin's plane went down, Huhn added.
Luke Bucklin's wife, Ginger, was heartened that the NTSB was addressing systemic shortcomings.
"We're confident that Luke made the best decisions he could, based on the information he had available to him," she said Thursday. She hopes that what the FAA learns from her husband's crash "will give pilots better tools to make good flying decisions."
The Jackson Hole airport can be challenging for some pilots to negotiate safely because of "the very high terrain surrounding the region" and the weather, Huhn said Thursday.
"For pilots trained in and acquainted with such terrain, its completely manageable, but for pilots who are not well-trained to understand and deal with it ... the hazards may not be so apparent," he said.
Bucklin's pilot rating allowed him to navigate by instruments. His flight into Jackson Hole for this trip went smoothly, and he had experience training and flying in the Colorado Rockies.
The crash site was found and the bodies removed about a week after the plane went down. The wreckage remains on the mountainside as recovery crews await warmer weather over the next month or two before retrieval.
In preliminary findings released in early November, the NTSB said that Bucklin told air-traffic control soon after takeoff that wind currents were pushing down the plane, which had topped out at about 14,000. Air traffic control assigned him an altitude of 16,000 feet.
The report also noted that Bucklin reported a "light chop" of turbulence and "a trace of rime icing" on the plane about 40 minutes after takeoff. Bucklin had received weather reports predicting both. Ice on wings can inhibit their ability to lift.
A retired longtime NTSB investigator, after reading the freshly released preliminary report, said Bucklin should have stayed put.
"I would never fly a single-engine airplane like that under those conditions," said Ronald Schleede, a 30-year NTSB veteran who lived in that region and investigated about a dozen similar crashes there. "He's already got rime ice on the airplane, and that plane is not made to handle much ice."
The NTSB's final report is pending and months away from release, Huhn said.
Bucklin, the CEO of Twin Cities tech company Sierra Bravo, and his sons were returning to Minneapolis after a family vacation. Ginger Bucklin and another son had left for home a day earlier.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482