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Dad piloting crashed plane was warned of conditions, report shows

Sep 16, 2012 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

Federal investigation into a deadly October 2010 plane crash has revealed the pilot's flight instructor had warned the pilot about high altitude and mountain flying.

The National Transportation Safety Board has released documents submitted by air safety investigator Michael Huhn that detailed a telephone conversation with Walter Nindl, who was a flight instructor assigned to Luke Bucklin.

Bucklin, 41, was one of four members of a Minnesota family who were killed when the plane crashed Oct. 25, 2010, in the Wind River Mountain Range.

On Nov. 1, 2010, searchers discovered Bucklin's downed single-engine Mooney-201 aircraft a mile east of the plane's last known location near Indian Pass at about 11,000 feet in the Fitzpatrick Wilderness Area of the Shoshone National Forest.

Also on board were Bucklin's sons, twins Nick and Nate, 14, and Noah, 12.

The wreckage discovery followed a weeklong search for the Bucklin plane, which disappeared from radar Oct. 25, 2010, after it departed from the Jackson Hole Airport. The plane was en route to Riverton Regional Airport to refuel.

According to the NTSB document, Nindl was employed by PIC, a company that provides flight instructions. The PIC approach to instruction was time and flight intensive, with training conducted in a short period over the course of several days.

Nindl was assigned to provide training to Bucklin, who was trained over the course of 10 days about 18 months before the crash. Nindl said he recalled "nothing out of the ordinary" from his training sessions with Bucklin.

Nindl said shortly before flying to Wyoming, Bucklin re-contracted with the flight instruction company to obtain training for his commercial license. He was reassigned to Nindl.

"The training finished up within about 1 week of the trip to Wyoming," Nindl said in documents.

The four-day training was conducted in Bucklin's Mooney plane.

Nindl signed off Bucklin to take his commercial flight test, which, according to documents, Bucklin said he would take after he returned from Wyoming.

"Upon hearing of the pilot's plans to fly to Wyoming, (Nindl) queried and cautioned him about high altitude and mountain flying," documents stated. "The pilot indicated that he had made the trip 'several times' previously."

Nindl reportedly provided Bucklin with his thoughts and cautions about winter weather, icing and mountain waves.

According to a document detailing e-mail correspondences between Huhn and Bucklin's wife, Ginger, Bucklin planned to make the trip home in one day on Oct. 24, 2010.

In her e-mails, Ginger Bucklin said the family left for Wyoming on Oct. 21 for a wedding and a vacation in the Grand Teton/Yellowstone National Park area. Because there were six of them and the plane seated four, she and another child flew both ways on a commercial flight.

Ginger Bucklin said her husband's plan to return home Oct. 24 was delayed a day because of weather.

She told investigators her husband made contingency plans because of the weather. She said after he aborted the Oct. 24 flight, he considered other options including driving home and taking a commercial flight.

"He decided against driving home due to it being such a long drive (18 hours)," she reportedly told Huhn. "He did book a commercial flight home for he and the boys on Delta, leaving Monday, 10/25. He planned to return to (Jackson) on Wednesday 10/27 to retrieve the Mooney."

Ginger Bucklin said her family boarded the plane, but the flight was canceled after the airport ran out of de-icing solution.

An hour later, after reviewing reports that indicated negative icing and weather appearing to break up, Ginger Bucklin said her husband decided to fly home in the Mooney.

"Before takeoff, Luke (Bucklin) delayed his flight for approximately an hour again due to weather," she said.

The morning of Oct. 25, Bucklin had two weather briefings, both of which indicated there were mountain obscuration, turbulence and icing along the planned flight routes and altitudes.

According to the NTSB, Bucklin had a private pilot certificate with the airplane, single land certification and instrument airplane ratings, which allowed him to fly in weather that reduces visibility. The Federal Aviation Administration said a pilot with this certification can fly in conditions where visibility is limited, such as in rain or snow, without visual reference to the ground, except for taking off and landing.

According to documents, Nindl also recommended that Bucklin should make his route selections to provide him with terrain margins and escape options, and to minimize the need for supplemental oxygen whenever possible.

Upon arrival to where the plane had crashed, investigators discovered evidence that indicated attempted usage of supplemental oxygen.

According to an accompanying document detailing the Fremont County Sheriff's Office investigation into the crash, an oxygen nasal canella was found at Bucklin's feet.

"Attempts were made to trace the hose back to the aircraft, however, it was severed," the report read.

A detective on scene reportedly located an oxygen bottle in the plane's cabin. The bottle was heavily damaged, and the top of the neck was broken. The tank was empty and found with the valve in the "on" position.

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