BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A North Dakota state senator took off from a remote Utah airport last month with his wife and two young sons in the plane without the runway lights on a night with no moonlight and crashed just a minute later, killing everyone aboard, investigators said in a preliminary report released Thursday.
Security video and a witness confirmed the runway lights that are controlled by the pilot remained dark when the plane took off on Oct. 1 from the airport outside Moab, but the report from the National Transportation Safety Board didn't explain why the lights weren't on. Investigators also didn't find any mechanical problems in their initial inspection of the wreckage, so it won't be clear what caused the crash until they finish their full report more than a year from now.
Doug and Amy Larsen and their two sons, 11-year-old Christian and 8-year-old Everett, were on the ground in Utah for less than three hours on their way home from a family gathering in Arizona.
Security video showed Larsen buying 27 gallons (102 liters) of fuel at a self-serve island at the airport shortly after landing around 5:45 p.m., when it was still daylight, and borrowing a car to drive into town, the NTSB said.
By the time the family got back to the airport shortly after 8 p.m., — more than an hour after sunset — it would have been exquisitely dark in an area known as prime stargazing territory because of the lack of lights. After the Larsens got back into the plane, the video showed the plane’s lights illuminate before it rolled down the runway and took off at 8:23 p.m.
The plane climbed 200 feet (61 meters) into the air and turned 180 degrees steeply to the right to fly back past the airport, the report said, without noting whether this was the correct path to head to North Dakota.
After that, the plane started to descend. Investigators found that it gouged a hilltop before crashing about 455 feet (139 meters) later. The plane finally stopped on a second hill about 65 feet (20 meters) from the second impact point and amid the debris of the landing gear and wheel covers.
A pilot can typically turn on runway lights easily with just a few clicks on the microphone at an uncontrolled airport like Moab’s, said Steven Wallace, who led the Federal Aviation Administration’s accident investigations for eight years. But the report said the runway lights remained dark.
“I consider it very significant,” Wallace said. “There’s just no reason to do that.”
But Wallace thinks the investigation will likely focus on how much experience the 47-year-old Larsen had flying using instruments alone. It was so dark that he could have quickly lost track of the horizon after takeoff and become disoriented unless he relied on instruments.
“I think that’s going to be in the minds of the accident investigators. It’s a well-known, documented, recurring cause of accidents — disorientation," Wallace said.
Wallace said that when only 200 feet off the ground, there is little room for errors.
The fact that Larsen flew Black Hawk helicopters during his 29 years with the North Dakota Army National Guard suggests he was likely trained to fly with instruments, Wallace said, but flying helicopters is almost entirely done visually.
He was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, Bronze Service Star and Army Aviator Badge, among other honors. He had logged about 1,800 total military flight hours, according to National Guard spokesperson Nathan Rivard.
Larsen was posthumously promoted from lieutenant colonel to colonel, having met the criteria for promotion, Rivard said.
The Associated Press was unable to independently verify that Larsen had instrument training. Larsen had recently earned his commercial pilot’s license and had hopes of one day flying for a major airline, state Sen. Jim Roers said.
Over the next year, investigators will spend more time examining the wreckage and tearing apart the plane’s engine for clues. But the NTSB said its initial examination of the wreckage “revealed no mechanical malfunctions or failures that would have precluded normal operations.”
Investigators also will carefully calculate just how much weight was on the plane with four people aboard and the additional fuel that Larsen just bought.
“I won’t be the least bit surprised if the final report shows the airplane was over its maximum certified takeoff weight," Wallace said.
Funerals were held Oct. 10 for the Larsens, and they were laid to rest in the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery.
Larsen, a Republican, was elected to the North Dakota Senate in 2020. In the 2023 session, he chaired a Senate panel that handled industry- and business-related legislation.
District Republicans recently appointed a successor for his seat representing Mandan, the city neighboring Bismarck to the west across the Missouri River. Justin Gerhardt, a project manager with a construction company who served nine years with the North Dakota Army National Guard, will serve the remainder of Larsen's term through November 2024. The seat is on the ballot next year for a full, four-year term.
Funk contributed to this report from Omaha, Nebraska.