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Aviation

A helicopter crashed above a glacier near Skagway, killing the pilot. Two years later, a cause emerges.

Veteran helicopter pilot Christopher Maggio died in a crash on a mountain-fringed glacier near Skagway in June 2016. (National Transportation Safety Board photo)

Veteran helicopter pilot Christopher Maggio left a dog-sledding camp on a mountain-fringed glacier near Skagway in June 2016 as the wind rose and snow started to pick up, a new federal report says.

Maggio, at 66 a longtime pilot for Temsco Helicopter Inc., died less than 10 minutes later when his AStar smashed into a snowy mountainside about 2 miles northeast of the camp.

A National Transportation Safety Board final report released this week found the cause of the crash to be the pilot's choice to fly into poor weather and "self-induced pressure to complete the flight."

But the report by investigator Mike Hodges also faulted Temsco's base manager in Skagway, who didn't cancel flights earlier when Maggio reported icing conditions.

Had the manager shut down operations for the day, the fatal flight wouldn't have happened, Hodges said.

The manager's "failure to appropriately exercise operational control" might have been due to Maggio's greater level of experience, the investigator wrote. The base manager, who was 30 at the time, had flown for eight years, all with Temsco.

It was Maggio's 25th year with the company.

Wooden dog boxes in the helicopter came loose in the crash and severely damaged the pilot's seat, the report stated. The weight of the boxes also wasn't factored into the total load.

The boxes weren't mentioned as a factor in the probable cause of the crash, however.

Temsco didn't immediately respond to a call for comment Friday.

Maggio was making the sixth of seven scheduled trips to the Alaska Icefield Expeditions camp on Denver Glacier, returning to base after dropping a musher and 12 dogs. The weather was deteriorating, the camp manager told NTSB.

Windy, foggy and snowy weather canceled flights all morning that day, the report says. But by just before 5 p.m., the wind dropped and weather cleared enough that Maggio deemed it safe to fly.

He flew two round trips, each with a musher and 10 dogs, before experiencing "a little bit" of icing on a third flight, Hodges found. Asked about conditions, he reported wet snow.

The base manager told him "to do what's best," Hodges wrote. "However, flight operations in icing conditions are prohibited by the helicopter's rotorcraft flight manual and the operator's operations manual, and the pilot's statement should have prompted the base manager to suspend the flights."

Two more flights, each with a musher and 10 or 11 dogs, occurred without incident, the investigator said.

A musher flying in with Maggio on what would become the fatal flight reported thick clouds moving in as they approached Denver Glacier, the report states. The camp manager reported decreasing visibility, snow getting heavier, and 20 to 30 mph winds.

Maggio dropped the musher and dogs.

Just before he left, the pilot told the camp manager he wouldn't make the final planned trip of the day because of the degrading conditions, the report states. The manager agreed.

Then the pilot said, " 'But don't give up on me yet,' a statement consistent with self-induced pressure to complete the day's series of flights," Hodges wrote.

Maggio tried to fly the normal departure route off the glacier but turned around, the report says. He probably encountered low-visibility conditions and then tried several departure routes north of the camp.

He crashed about eight minutes later, Hodges found. It's likely he flew into an area where he needed instruments to navigate, lost visual reference and flew into a mountain.

Meanwhile, the base manager hadn't heard from the pilot, saw his location at 2,000 feet above the dog camp, and tried unsuccessfully to raise him on the radio, the report says. Then he personally flew out to the area in a helicopter with an observer.

Low ceilings, blowing snow and turbulence kept him away from the camp for an hour until clearing weather allowed the base manager to find the battered helicopter in steep, mountainous terrain near a frozen lake.

As winds increased to an estimated 50 to 70 mph, search parties from the camp — several workers tried to get in on snowmachines — as well as the base manager and Coast Guard tried but initially couldn't reach the crash site, Hodges found. The Coast Guard later confirmed that Maggio didn't survive.

His death sent shock waves through the small community of Skagway. Maggio was a former school board member who was active in the art scene and taught ukulele, the local newspaper reported.

In 1997, Maggio rescued a pilot and passenger from a Haines Airways crash that took the lives of four others, according to a remembrance in the Skagway News. Maggio and another man provided emergency floats to the survivors and guided rescue boats. He was quoted as saying he wished they could have done more.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the first reference to Temsco Helicopter Inc. was misspelled. 

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