Investigation ongoing into glider crash | RecordCourier.com
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Investigation ongoing into glider crash

by Christina Nelson

Though friends and fellow glider pilots say they’re saddened by a sailplane accident that killed two colleagues, it won’t make them give up the sport they love.

They say crash victims Donald Engen, 75, of Virginia, and William Ivans, 79, of California wouldn’t have it any other way.

Engen, director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and former administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, and Ivans, former president of the Soaring Society of America, died Tuesday when their sailplane lost a wing and struck the Valley floor at speeds of 180-200 mph.

National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bob Francis flew from Washington Wednesday morning to help with the investigation.

Francis was a good friend of Engen and switched assignments with another NTSB member to be in Minden. NTSB members from Washington and Los Angeles were at the crash site to conduct the investigation.

“(Engen’s death) is an enormous loss to the nation and an enormous loss to those of us who were his friend,” Francis said.

Francis was the chief NTSB spokesman for the TWA flight 800 crash.

The NTSB’s investigation covers every possibility, from turbulence caused by the weather to a malfunction with the aircraft.

Though investigators say they won’t speculate about causes of the crash, they are looking at a possible malfunction in the speed brakes, which add drag to slow the aircraft down.

Rumors of speed brake malfunctions in similar sailplanes – one in South Africa and the other in New Zealand – prompted investigators to consider the possibility of the malfunction. The German-made sailplane was one of four in the United States.

Jeff Rich, NTSB investigator in charge of the accident, said it’s unfair to the manufacturer of the sailplane to say that it was a malfunction at this point in the investigation. He stressed that it’s one of the many possibilities routinely considered during a flight investigation.

“In the initial, early stages it’s dangerous to zero in on any one thing that someone might say,” Rich said.

“Our interest in this glider is to see that we do not have potential air worthiness concerns,” he said at a press conference Wednesday.

NTSB officials spent Thursday at the Fallon Naval Air Station trying to get radar readings from the time of the crash. Rich said they only found a small amount of activity because the radar detects at 11,000 feet above sea level – slightly above where the sailplane was flying.The data they have collected from the radar will be sent to Washington to be analyzed.

They will also try to determine if either of the pilots tried to make radio contact before the crash. An in-flight recorder that was severely damaged will be sent back to the manufacturer to be analyzed.

The sailplane had dual controls and Ivans, the owner of the plane, was in the front seat, the traditional pilot seat. Both pilots were wearing parachutes, but investigators do not know if they tried to deploy them.

Another factor being considered is the weather the day of the crash. Investigators said witnesses who were flying that day said there was turbulence.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office assisted the NTSB with the initial investigation on Tuesday and Wednesday. NTSB investigators took over Thursday when they moved the wreckage to a hangar at the airport where they reconstructed the sailplane.

“When you see those kind of things, it’s hard to get it out of your mind,” Sheriff Ron Pierini said. He said it was one of the worst accidents he has seen in his 26 years of law enforcement.

“You hope you never see those kind of things, but unfortunately we do,” he said.

Six Douglas County Search and Rescue members helped at the crash site Tuesday by marking pieces of the aircraft that were scattered up to one mile away.

Despite the accident, glider pilots took to the air without hesitation all week.

“Almost everybody involved in soaring has a passion for flight. They accept the risk of being around that passion,” said Mike Moore, an instructor at Soar Minden and 30-year glider pilot.

“Both Don Engen and Bill Ivans were experienced pilots, and that’s why it’s a puzzle,” said Max Skovgaard, a member of the Minden Soaring Club and a friend of the two pilots.

“I think most glider pilots are going to press on,” he said. “It was a freak accident. We have to keep on doing what we love to do.”

Glider pilots agree that they are a close knit community and the two accidents in the past month affect everyone, whether they were close, personal friends with the victims or casual acquaintances.

“That’s why we are so saddened by this incident. Because the two people involved were part of the community,” Moore said.

Moore and one of his students witnessed the latter half of the accident when the 4-DM Nimbus aircraft was tumbling out of the sky. Shortly after the accident, Moore and his student went flying, but decided they were too unfocused to remain in the air, and landed the aircraft.

Moore said the accident does prompt others in the industry and students learning the sport to stop and think about the consequences. As an instructor, he tries to emphasize safety.

“It becomes a reason to visit again some of the safety topics we would be covering anyway, or covered in the past,” Moore said.

Moore, who has been soaring for 30 years and teaching the sport for 28, said that accidents like this are rare enough for the sport to be considered safe.

Young pilots can be certified to make solo glider flights at 14 years old. The next level of licensing allows glider pilots to fly with another person.

Trent Moyers, operations supervisor at the Minden-Tahoe Airport, said glider flights have not decreased because of the tragedy and routine safety inspections have not increased.

“It was a little sobering,” Moyers said. “Anytime you’re involved in (the investigation of) an accident where there are casualties, you do a self-evaluation.”

Marvin Rogge, the insurance adjuster for Ivans’ sailplane, said Engen’s family was at the hangar Thursday morning looking at the wreckage. He described the Engens as an aviation family. Engen’s three sons are glider pilots and his wife is a parachute jumper.

For now the investigation will continue. When it concludes, the NTSB – an independent government agency – may make recommendations to the FAA or the aircraft manufacturer, or both.