A federal official investigating the crash of 11-year-old Tony Aliengena's plane said Thursday that the pilot, Tony's father, had mistaken the 300-foot taxiway for the 2,700-foot runway and had tried to take off from it.
Paul Steucke, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the mistake led directly to Tuesday's crash off the gravel taxiway in the Alaskan fishing village of Golovin.
Dogged by questions about his father's role in the accident, the San Juan Capistrano boy renewed his round-the-world Friendship Flight '89 Thursday. Piloting a replacement Cessna 210 Centurion loaned to the party by Alaskan businessman Ralph C. Meloon Jr., Tony flew here from Nome to begin his trek down the West Coast and a planned Saturday rendezvous with John Wayne Airport.
For the first time since the trip began June 5, the focus Thursday was not so much on Tony as on his father, Gary Aliengena, 39.
The eight people on the plane escaped serious injury, scampering from the plane as flames leaped around the right wing. Federal officials here said it is miraculous that no one was killed.
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board immediately began investigating, focusing on everything from Aliengena's inability to distinguish the taxiway from the runway to his decision to load eight people into a plane that has seats and seat belts for just six.
The taxiway at Golovin, where Aliengena had landed two days earlier for a fishing trip, turned out to be far too short for the Cessna. As Aliengena accelerated down the strip, the taxiway sharply turned left at its intersection with the main runway, and he was forced to ditch the craft in a marshy channel.
Steucke credited Aliengena with avoiding a worse disaster by "gunning the plane and keeping the nose up" when he realized he was about to run out of field, thereby taking the plane down on its belly instead of its tail or nose.
The attention the crash has generated was clearly upsetting to Aliengena, who arrived here Thursday to face a host of reporters wanting to know what went wrong.
"That's a whole separate thing," he said about the crash. "They (reporters) can run anything they want about me. It's the Friendship Flight that is important."
Aliengena blamed the layout of the gravel runway and taxiway, rather than fatigue or an error in judgment, for the accident.
"They look identical," he said about the taxiway and runway. "At most airports, there is a sharper turn when you taxi out to the runway. Here, it was only a 30-degree turn. It looks identical. It is poorly laid out."
2 Sat on Laps
Steucke also said it was clear that Aliengena had erred when he loaded the small plane with two more passengers than its limit. Tony's sister, Alaina, and his Soviet pen pal, Roman Tcheremenylch, both 10, were sitting on laps and did not have seat belts.
Steucke said FAA regulations require separate seat belts and seats for everyone older than 2.
"Most people on modern airlines know you can't take anyone up on your lap," he said.
In addition, while not a technical violation of FAA regulations, Steucke said Aliengena may have been extremely tired.
"It may have been a contributing factor," Steucke said. "When you have an accident like this, there usually are multiple factors, and that is the case here."
Aliengena conceded Thursday that he should not have put eight people on the plane. But "weight-wise, I was within the gross limits of the aircraft," he said, adding that he did not know the rule about seats and seat belts for everyone older than 2.
"Sometimes, years ago, we would put the kids on our laps while flying," he said. "I didn't know I was doing anything wrong. That was the only thing I violated."
'A Good 6 Hours of Sleep'
Aliengena also rejected the notion that he was fatigued: "That's just not true. I had a good six hours of sleep. I know what tired is. I used to drive a truck for 24 hours."
The fatigue factor came into question when Lance Allyn, a resident of Hanford in Kings County who is flying a chase plane, said Aliengena had gotten just two hours of sleep before flying to Golovin.
He also discounted wind as a contributing cause.
"Initially, the concept of what happened was different," Aliengena said. Later, he realized the problem was that he had proceeded down the taxiway.
Steucke said he considers misidentifying the taxiway "an honest mistake" but stressed that it would be up to FAA and NTSB investigators to decide. He said the investigation would take six to eight weeks.
If Aliengena is found to have violated FAA regulations, Steucke said, the punishment could range from a written warning to a temporary revocation of his pilot's license.
Harsh Penalties Unlikely
He hinted, however, that what happened was not something that might bring harsh fines or penalties.
"It is our philosophy not to use a club when something else will work," he said. "Our objective is to gain compliance. Gary has been very open and cooperative about all this."
Aliengena said: "I feel bad about the accident, and I feel bad about the plane, which was part of our family. But we have to go on. We have to get past the accident."