Editor’s note: The National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report of the March 30, 2024, crash after press deadline. Review the seven-page report here.

Of note is the pilot, Liron Petrushka, attempting to activate the lights for runway 21, which were off with the flight tower’s closure at 6 p.m. Once the tower closes, pilots can turn on runway lights themselves.

“This is done by ‘keying’ the microphone button on the radio multiple times,” explained Jeff Menasco, director of aviation. “This ‘clicking’ of the microphone button was heard and recorded on the frequency; that’s why the NTSB mentioned that the pilot was activating the lights. The runway lights were activated on by the pilot.”

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The devastating March 30 plane crash that killed Liron and Naomi Petrushka, two Incline Village residents, is the third major incident in 3 years in the vicinity of the Truckee airport.

In 2021, two fatal airplane accidents happened just over 1 month apart: On June 15, during an instructional flight, a student pilot, under the eye of a flight instructor, lost control of a Cirrus Design Corporation SR20 airplane during takeoff from Truckee airport, crashing 1 mile southwest of the runway. The flight instructor sustained fatal injuries; the student pilot had serious injuries.

On July 26 that same year, during a descent to Truckee airport, a pilot crew lost control of a Bombardier CL-600-2B16 airplane, resulting in the deaths of four passengers and two pilots. Visibility was low at the time due to wildfire smoke.

The March 2024 incident, which happened during winter weather conditions, remains under investigation by the National Transportation Board of Safety. Determination of probable causes in airplane accidents are included in final reports by the agency, which can take 1 to 2 years to complete. It is believed that the pilot, Liron Petrushka, was flying an instrument approach into Truckee before the crash.

SINCE 2021, there have been three fatal airplane crashes near the Truckee Tahoe Airport. Map courtesy Google; illustration by Sarah Miller/Moonshine Ink

In light of these incidents one might wonder what role the Truckee Tahoe Airport plays in such crashes, in our high-altitude, mountainous terrain.

“We definitely try to do our best within our control to not have devastating incidents like that,” said Truckee Tahoe Airport District General Manager Robb Etnyre.

Airplane crashes within the United States are a rare thing: The National Safety Council reports that as of the end of 2022, the last time a scheduled commercial flight went down, killing its passengers and crew, was in 2009. Truckee airport’s users are primarily private pilots and air taxis (small, commercial airplanes used for short flights).

Nationally, these categories experience a higher likelihood of accidents. In 2021, there were nine fatal air taxi crashes, including the July 26 incident in Truckee; 2022 saw four. For general aviation (private flights), there were 211 fatal accidents in 2021, while 2022 had 214.

Situated in Martis Valley, the Truckee Tahoe Airport is operated by a special district. Approximately 30,000 take-offs and landings take place there annually. Staff maintain oversight of the pavement, runways, equipment, and an air traffic control tower. The tower is funded by the airport rather than the Federal Aviation Administration, though its controllers are FAA-certified.

“We pay for a control tower for safety because we have a complex flying environment,” Etnyre said.

Because of the mountainous terrain and the non-precision approaches, a number of the carriers won’t come here at nighttime. And it’s not just us. They will not go into a high-altitude mountainous terrain airport.”

~ Jeff Menasco, Truckee Tahoe Airport District director of aviation

Once an aircraft takes off, or until it lands, the airport does not hold responsibility. As an FAA-recognized Class D airspace, the Truckee airport has its control tower and provides weather reporting but no radar services. For example, if an aircraft is approaching, Truckee controllers can use “soft language,” as Jeff Menasco, director of aviation, described it, to offer insight around the weather. “It’s a visual flight rules tower as opposed to an instrument flight rules tower … Our controllers can talk to the aircraft, tell ’em what to do within the airspace,” he furthered, “but the pilot is in command; they’re the ultimate authority.”

Airplane approaches to the airport are monitored by the district staff, but ultimately, they’re cleared by an outside source: the Air Route Traffic Control Center in Oakland. In fact, the Oakland center was in communication with Petrushkas’ single engine TBM aircraft N960LP on March 30.

That Saturday night, snowy conditions hampered visibility. Earlier in the day, the airport had seen five or so flights before the weather began to deteriorate.

“We see almost no air activity in storms given our mountainous terrain here,” Etnyre said. “If it’s so bad [pilots] can’t actually land on the airfield, we’ll close the airfield because we have to remove snow … It wasn’t at that point in the [March 30] storm; the airfield was not closed.”

The control tower, however, was closed at the time of impact, 6:38 p.m. Tower hours follow the sun, and in March, staff closed up shop at 6 p.m. Currently the tower closes at 7 p.m.; starting June 1 until Sept. 30, it will operate until 8 p.m.

The Petrushkas were in contact with the Oakland center during descent on their flight from Denver. Standard protocol for a descent after hours, Menasco said, is that once a plane is cleared by Oakland to land, the pilot will switch to an advisory frequency for the Truckee tower, even if it’s closed, then contact the Oakland center once on the ground.

Menasco, a pilot himself, gave an example of how he would operate when landing after hours in Truckee after being cleared for descent by Oakland: “I go through a bunch of pilot talk as to where I’m going. Kind of like Marco Polo. Because now everyone can see each other on ADS-B [technology that uses satellite and GPS to track airplanes], which is very helpful, I would just make calls as to what I’m doing. Then I would land here on my own.”

It’s likely that the Oakland center, after clearing the aircraft, observed the aircraft fly the approach, then witnessed the tracks stopping on ADS-B before reaching the airport. This is a detail that will be confirmed in the final report.

TTAD’s only involvement in the investigation is providing footage and data that will help the National Transportation Board of Safety determine what happened leading up to terrain impact. Airport staff was on-site after the crash, which happened on Union Pacific property within Town of Truckee limits, alongside personnel from Truckee police, Truckee fire, Nevada County Sheriff, and Nevada County Coroner.

Peak travel time for the Truckee airport tends to be in July, primarily during daylight hours. There’s a suggested no-fly time from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., though it’s not a restriction. In July, the airport might have a dozen aircraft landing during those hours, but during other months, such as March 2024, there can be zero flights. Part of that comes from safety, regardless of the time of year.

“Because of the mountainous terrain and the non-precision approaches,” Menasco explained, “a number of the carriers won’t come here at nighttime. And it’s not just us. They will not go into a high-altitude mountainous terrain airport.” He added that large operators such as NetJets or Flexjet have corporate rules disallowing night-time arrivals in airports with mountainous terrain. NetJets declined to comment; Flexjet did not confirm by press deadline.

“I would not be comfortable flying in Truckee in the weather at nighttime here unless I really, really had to,” Menasco added.

While military and commercial pilots have regular, highly structured training, private pilots are often on their own with figuring out continuing education opportunities. The Truckee Tahoe Airport District is on the front-end in addressing that with its new FLY SAFE Program.

“We’re actually working with our local pilots and transient pilots to up their proficiency and professionalism when it comes to their competency of flying,” Etnyre explained. “We want really good, well-trained, well-educated, and responsible aircraft operators here.”

“We’re the only airport in the U.S. to do this right now,” echoed Menasco, the mind behind the program.

On top of that, Etnyre said the Truckee airport is the only one in the world to only offer sustainable aviation fuel to its jet traffic.

“I believe we’re going in many regards above and beyond the typical general aviation airport to implement programs … to professionalize and make this a safer experience, both for the pilots and for the community,” he said.

Author

  • Alex Hoeft

    Alex Hoeft joined Moonshine staff in May 2019, happy to return to the world of journalism after a few years in community outreach. She has both her bachelor's and Master's in journalism, from Brigham Young University and University of Nevada, Reno, respectively. When she's not journalism-ing, she's wrangling her toddler or reading a book — or doing both at the same time.

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