Pilot reveals extent of fatal skydive plane’s rebuilding & testing after past close call

Always Investigating

As Always Investigating was first to report, the skydiving airplane that crashed last month on the North Shore killing 11 people had a close call years before in California. Now KHON2 adds a first-hand account of what went into rebuilding and testing that plane for service in Hawaii after it partially broke apart above the Bay Area.

Adam Townley-Wren, the pilot who brought that plane to Hawaii for Oahu Parachute Center, says it was partially rebuilt, thoroughly inspected, and performed well during test flights and years of service before the tragic crash.

Oahu Parachute Center hired Townley-Wren in 2017 to ferry the plane to the islands on a 14-hour journey, after OPC leased it from a California owner. That was just a year after a harrowing incident in 2016 in California in which 14 passengers had to bail out at more than 12,000 feet, as parts of the very same plane came apart. The pilot struggled to regain control in a rapid flat spin. The plane sustained substantial tail-end damage.

Always Investigating asked Townley-Wren: When people see that video, they ask how can that plane fly again people aboard?

“That aircraft from what we call the aft pressure bulkhead, from that on back, every rivet was inspected or replaced,” he explained, “and that was the newest, most examined part of the entire aircraft at that point.”

KHON2 asked, did that concern him at all before the delivery?

“Not specifically for the delivery,” Townley-Wren said, “but before I flew it the first time, for sure. I did some of my own evaluations to ensure that the aircraft was OK and rigged correctly in terms of the flight controls.”

The transpacific crossing put the repaired plane through its paces, too — flying longer, heavier and higher than it would ever have to fly again for Hawaii skydiving outings.

“I definitely did more intense maneuvers and everything than it would have ever been subject to under normal operations,” Townley-Wren said, “so I could speak to its full envelope. I trusted the aircraft at the time. I had no indications that there were going to be any problems.”

Neither did the Federal Aviation Administration, which allowed skydive flights to commence after a startup inspection in December 2017, plus an operations inspection in March 2018.

“It was looked at by federal agencies and all kinds of things after that incident,” the pilot said.

KHON2 asked if he had any knowledge if this plane then continued to get its 100-hour and annual service as required?

“I don’t have any personal knowledge of that,” Townley-Wren said, “but I do know mechanics that have worked on the airplane, and know that the operator was a very safety-conscious guy.”

The operator he’s referring to is George Rivera, who had operated Hawaii Parachute Center for about a decade before starting Oahu Parachute Center in 2017.

“He was a parachute rigger, which is very stringent,” Townley-Wren said. “It’s an FAA certification and he maintained parachutes doing the various stitchings and things.”

Townley-Wren was involved in the startup training for Oahu Parachute Center staff.

“I also did some of the flight training for the initial cadre of pilots that the operator had up there,” he said. “We went over engine-out procedures and stalls and all sorts of emergency preparation.”

From the delivery through the start-up training, Townley-Wren says he saw no sign of any lingering problems from the Bay Aea incident damage. He has told everything he saw to the National Transportation Safety Board investigators who interviewed him.

“They came to all of us looking for any information,” he said. “They are still looking for pictures and videos of the incident especially. I’ve been encouraging people that I know who have had interactions with the aircraft to testify.”

The NTSB has asked for witness pictures and videos going back as far as the plane’s nearly 2 years of Hawaii operations. Information can be sent to eyewitnessreport@ntsb.gov

The NTSB’s preliminary report could be out as soon as this week.

“It’s all speculation but if somebody forced me to guess right now Iwould say that they had an engine problem shortly after takeoff and they got into a thing that is called VMC, which is your minimum control airspeed,” Townley-Wren explained. “When you’re on one engine in a multiengine aircraft, you have to maintain forward airspeed so there’s enough air moving over the rudder to so you can keep going straight. If you don’t, if you fail to do that, you’ll have kind of what the reports are saying: the aircraft, at a low altitude, flipped, inverted and crashed.”

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