February 13th was a Monday and the federal courtroom was packed after a weekend recess. Like many lawsuits involving negligence, this was a case of who was right and who was wrong and who was going to pay. The legal spotlight on this day was focused on air tour and charter company Las Vegas Airlines (LVA). The long time operator of Grand Canyon air tours was trying to convince an unconvinced jury how bad weather was to blame for the fatal crash of one of their flights into a cloud shrouded mountain during December 1991.
For Las Vegas Airlines father and son owners, Donald Donohue Sr. and Don Jr. sitting in the courtroom's "hotseat" with their team of lawyers, was a bit like Déjà vu. The Donohues had been here before. The first time was in 1978, when one of their Piper Navajo Chieftains crashed shortly after takeoff killing all ten on-board. The other, was the devastating loss of LVA Flight 88 in August 1983 which wiped out nine Italian tourists and pilot within the Grand Canyon. Now they were back in court dealing with another preventable fatal accident that took five lives. The small family owned airline for the most part was holding its own after these mishaps, but each of these accidents brought increasing scrutiny from the FAA and media. Not to mention higher insurance premium costs. The last thing Las Vegas Airlines needed was another accident. Suddenly Donohue Jr's. cell phone rang. It was Jack Brekke, LVA's General Manager. Las Vegas Airlines Flight 45 had just crashed at Grand Canyon.
Las Vegas Airlines Flight 45 was operated by a Piper PA-31-350 Chieftain (N27245) making it's return flight back to North Las Vegas Airport (KVGT). In command of Flight 45 was Captain Avilia W. Moore and like all pilots for LVA he was a retired military flier with most of his experience in high performance jets and little experience in general aviation piston powered aircraft. The nine passengers on the manifest were Taiwanese nationals. Having flown with Captain Moore earlier in the day, they spent a couple of hours peering over the canyon's edge and buying souvenirs to bring back home. After a buffet lunch, it was time to head back to the airport for the return flight. With his passengers boarded, Captain Moore wasted no time in getting both engines started and calling the control tower for a taxi clearance.
At 3:30 PM, Flight 45 departed runway 21, but as Moore began making his right turn for Las Vegas, the left engine suddenly began loosing power. Moore began a desperate attempt to re-start the engine by adjusting the engine's throttle and fuel mixture, but to no avail. Faced with an inoperative engine and flying no higher than 100-200 above the terrain, Moore declared an emergency. He then stated to the control tower "i'm single engine right now". The flight never turned directly back to the runway, but instead continued flying for about 6 minutes, turning onto a crosswind, downwind, and then a right base leg for runway 21. Moore was nearly 2.5 miles northeast of the airport when he contacted the top of an 80 foot ponderosa pine tree. The aircraft then began to break apart as it made it's uncontrolled descent to the forest's floor in a burning pile of metal. When rescue personnel arrived, eight people including the pilot were dead at the scene. Miraculously, two passengers survived the accident with serious trauma and burn injuries. After several weeks of recovery in hospital burn units, they would return to their families in Taiwan badly maimed, but alive.
The cause of the engine failure was never determined. The pilot was faulted for not following proper emergency engine failure procedures and turning into higher terrain with an inoperative engine. For Las Vegas Airlines this fatal accident proved to be their last. The company, which was founded in 1973, filed for bankruptcy and closed their doors in 1996.
First of all, I would like to thank Ms. Lora Pitsinger of the Tusayan Fire Department for providing the location details that allowed me to find the crash site. Ms. Pitsinger was one of the first responders called to this accident in 1995. This was her first "serious" emergency call and she still remembers it well. A year ago I mentioned my interest to document this site for historical purposes and she was generous to provide her account of the accident. The crash site has special meaning to her and others that responded to this tragic event.
The site itself is located on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and as with most recent accident sites in this area the majority of large wreckage debris was removed during the few days after the on-site investigation and subsequent clean-up . The main cabin burn area is contained within a radius of approximately 15 feet and consists of small structural fragments and components that have been exposed to considerable heat and fire damage. An outer area with a radius of about 25 feet contains plastic material and window plexiglass that exhibits little if any fire damage. Some of the trees in the crash path appear to have impact damage and trees immediately within the main cabin burn area show signs of charring. I was not able to locate wreckage outside of the 25 foot outer area.
LAS VEGAS AIRLINES - 1995
By 1995, Las Vegas Airlines was holding it's own in the competitive Grand Canyon air tourist market.
The airline never operated turbine aircraft, relying solely on the Piper PA-31-350 Chieftain to shuttle passengers to and from Las Vegas and Grand Canyon.
The flight departed without incident from the Grand Canyon Airport at 3:30 PM, but an unknown problem developed with the aircraft's left engine.
With it's left engine inoperative, Las Vegas Airlines Flight 45 was last seen by the control tower flying 100-200 feet above the treeline.
The combination of the failed left engine, high elevation, and increased density altitude degraded the performance of Flight 45. The flight crashed about 6 minutes after departure.
Local and state investigators secure the accident scene of LVA Flight 45.
By the time emergency responders arrived at the crash site eight people were dead at the scene and two passengers (women) were in critical condition.
THE CRASH SITE OF LVA FLIGHT 45 - OCTOBER 2010
The crash site is located just a few hundred feet from a forest service road. I was able to drive directly to the site by utilizing a clearing made by the rescue and recovery teams that responded to this accident in 1995.
The crash site is located in a moderately forested area of the Kaibab National Forest on the Grand Canyon's south rim.
The trees are comprised of a combination of Spruce and Ponderosa Pine which grow to an average height of 60-80 feet. The forest floor is rocky and covered with fallen trees.
The record is not too promising. Most aircraft that crash in this terrain have resulted in fatalities.
The aircraft main cabin burn site encompasses the area around these two dead trees. Much of the burn area today is covered by forest growth and a layer of pine needles.
It was not long before I located a piece of aircraft wreckage that identified the site of the Piper Navajo Chieftain.
The small part modification placard stamped "PIPER AIRCRAFT CORP." displays a part number that identifies the placard being originally attached to the right horizontal stabilizer.
The pilot was most likely wearing a headset while operating the aircraft so this radio microphone clip was probably rarely used during normal airline operations.
The dead trees near were the aircraft fuselage came to rest exhibit burn damage from the post crash fire.