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Federal safety board publishes initial findings from fatal Hermantown plane crash

The Cessna 172S crashed into a couple’s home Oct. 1, killing the three people on board.

Debris from a plane crashing into a house is seen from above
Wreckage of the fatal plane crash is seen Oct. 2.
Contributed / Elliott Peterson
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HERMANTOWN — Federal investigators this week published further details about a fatal plane crash, but didn’t offer any theories about why a Cessna 172S crashed into an Arrowhead Road home earlier this month, killing its pilot and two passengers and narrowly missing the sleeping couple inside.

A preliminary report released this week by the National Transportation Safety Board describes the run-up to the crash, weather conditions, the damage the plane sustained, and some checks to the plane’s engine and other components, none of which seemed to indicate a mechanical issue.

Flight tracking data indicates it crashed into the house shortly after taking off from Duluth International Airport late Saturday night.

It’s meant to put forth safety board and Federal Aviation Administration staffers’ initial findings before they publish a more formal and detailed report approximately a year from now. The report notes the information is subject to change and may contain errors.

Among the findings in the preliminary report:

  • The pilot and passengers were friends who had flown up from a municipal airport in South St. Paul the morning of Oct. 1, attended a Twin Ports wedding and reception, and then attempted to fly back from Duluth International Airport about 12 hours after first arriving. They did not ask for any fueling or maintenance on the plane.
  • The pilot, Tyler Fretland, 32, of Burnsville, Minnesota, incorrectly read back a “departure frequency” issued to him and wasn’t corrected by the air traffic controller.
  • Preliminary tracking data indicates the plane left the airport’s runway at 11:12 p.m. and turned south while climbing to about 1,750 feet. It then entered a “tight,” 270-degree “teardrop turn” to the left and ultimately climbed to about 2,800 feet before descending.
  • The air traffic controller tried to contact the pilot on the departure frequency and heard no response. The controller contacted Fretland on the airport’s “tower frequency” and instructed him to contact departure, which he did.
  • As the airplane continued to turn left and descend “with increasing ground speed,” the controller asked Fretland to confirm that he was climbing. “There was no response and no further communication from the pilot,” the safety board’s report reads.
  • The plane struck the front of a two-story house, passing through two upstairs bedrooms, then came to rest upside-down between a parked vehicle and a detached garage. There was no fire, and the crash left about 100 feet worth of wreckage.
  • Post-crash checks on the plane’s engine showed no apparent issues with various components.
Hermantown plane crash 2
Wreckage is seen in the backyard of a Hermantown home Oct. 3 after a fatal plane crash the night before.
Dan Williamson / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune

The results of the mechanical checks, though, are new, but it’s not entirely clear what they suggest or rule out. National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson Keith Holloway said the information in the preliminary report has not been analyzed.

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The fixed-wing, single-engine plane left Duluth around 11:10 p.m. Saturday and reached an altitude of 2,300 feet before it crashed, according to Flightaware.com.

“No conclusions or determinations have been drawn at this point,” Holloway told the News Tribune via email. “We would not be able to go beyond what is presented in the preliminary report at this time.”

The "prelim," Holloway said, does not provide an exhaustive list of everything investigators have checked. Rather, it's designed to cover common or reasonable factors that can cause an accident, giving an indication whether investigators believe there is something that warrants further work.

"In this case investigators didn't find any substantive findings with the engines or flight controls (at this time)," Holloway wrote. "With that said, NTSB is providing insight into the factual findings, but at this point are not analyzing any final meaning from those until other factual information is gathered so that investigators can then analyze everything together in context. So, in this case, pilot records, recorded track data (NVM and radar), pathology, etc. will all be looked at together with the physical findings of the wreckage, and at that point NTSB will say that there was/was not something wrong with the airplane."

Aaron McCarter, an air safety investigator at the safety board who’s functioned as a sort-of NTSB spokesperson after high-profile plane crashes, was not available for comment Thursday.

The 911 calls

St. Louis County released to the News Tribune transcripts of a pair of 911 calls made the night of the crash.

In the first, at 11:16 p.m., a caller from Duluth’s air traffic control tower tells dispatchers that a plane just departed from there, went south, and then was lost on the tower’s radar.

“We believe he crashed,” the controller said.

The caller said he wasn’t sure how many people were onboard the plane.

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Authorities would later name the three victims: Fretland, who was reportedly flying the plane, plus Alyssa Schmidt, 32, of St. Paul, and her brother, Matthew Schmidt, 31, of Burnsville, Minnesota.

The couple who owns the house, Jason and Crystal Hoffman, were uninjured in the crash. Hermantown city staff have since deemed their house “unlivable.”

Jason Hoffman homeowner plane crash
Jason Hoffman stands in front of his damaged home at 5154 Arrowhead Road, Hermantown, after a plane crashed into it Oct. 2.
Dan Williamson / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune

In the other 911 call, at 11:17 p.m., the caller at first suspects that a car rammed into a telephone pole with an attached transformer in front of his house on Arrowhead Road, knocking out power to his house and the rest of the neighborhood. First responders were already en route.

The address the caller gave is one door east and across the street from the Hoffmans’ home.

“What the heck’s going on?” he says after finding a flashlight and heading outside at the dispatcher’s request. The caller told the dispatcher that he did not see fire.

County staff declined to provide to the News Tribune body camera or squad car footage of sheriff's deputies responding to the crash, claiming that it cannot be released to anyone who is not the “data subject.”

This story was updated at 5:59 p.m. on Oct. 21 with further context from National Transportation Safety Board representatives. It was originally posted at 5:26 p.m. on Oct. 20.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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As reported by Douglas County Circuit Court.