NTSB: No definitive cause of ’16 plane crash off Molokai

Cessna went down in waters 7 nautical miles northwest of airport, killing all three aboard

The National Transportation Safety Board reports provide clues but no definitive cause of the Dec. 30, 2016, crash of a Cessna 172M that went down near Ilio Point, about 7 nautical miles northwest of the Molokai Airport, killing two men and a woman, all Oahu residents in their 20s.

Michael Childers piloted the aircraft, and the passengers were Whitney Thomas, Childers’ girlfriend, and friend John Mizuno.

An NTSB preliminary report in January said the Cessna climbed to about 2,500 feet after taking off from the airport at Hoolehua. Then, it made a descending right turn and disappeared from air traffic control radar at 6:49 p.m. The rented aircraft had been returning to the Honolulu International Airport, now the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, on Oahu.

A U.S. Coast Guard search-and-rescue effort began immediately after the plane went missing, but the search was suspended Jan. 2. The plane has not been recovered, and the 26-year-old pilot and his passengers are presumed dead.

An NTSB weather study of the crash released Monday suggests that adverse weather may have played a role in the crash. It says that while there were no structural icing conditions below 14,000 feet, there was the possibility of downdrafts coming out of the bottom of rain showers with wind gusts of up to 32 mph.

“With dissipating rain shower activity directly above the accident site at the accident time, the accident aircraft was in a favored region for downdrafts and outflow boundaries,” the weather study says. “There were no lightning strikes around the accident site at the accident time.”

An NTSB factual report also released Monday details Childers’ experience as a pilot. He held a private pilot certificate with a rating for a single-engine aircraft. The certificate was issued on Oct. 30.

Childers had applied for a Federal Aviation Administration airman certificate, and his application indicated that he had accumulated 73 total flight hours, including four instrument hours and 14 hours in the category of night takeoff/landing. His personal flight logbook was not recovered.

The weather study reported that Childers requested multiple weather briefings from Lockheed Martin Flight Services. His first contact with Lockheed Martin on the day of the crash was at 4:17 p.m., before he departed from Honolulu to fly to Molokai, but he declined to receive adverse weather conditions.

Childers called again at 5:08 p.m., and the briefer discussed weather conditions along his intended flight path. Then, at 6:20 p.m., after he arrived on Molokai, Childers contacted Lockheed Martin Flight Services again, and the briefer went over flight path weather conditions again. Those included an area forecast and winds aloft information.

A weather forecast for the area at the time of the crash called for few clouds 1,000 feet above sea level and scattered clouds at 2,000 feet. A broken overcast ceiling was at 3,000 feet, and there were light rain showers. The weather study reported visibility was 6 miles at Molokai Airport about 17 minutes before the crash. Wind was blowing at 13 mph with gusts to 22 mph.

The airplane was operated by Lani Lea Sky Tours and registered to Kumiko Yamataka, who is listed as an official with the company, according to state business filings.

The Cessna was built in 1973 and registered to Yamataka on Oct. 21, 2015. The most recent annual inspection of the aircraft was on Dec. 28, two days before the crash.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.