Kristi Dunks was one of the first people on the scene of the March 22, 2009, airplane crash at Holy Cross Cemetery in Butte, which killed 14 people.
A senior air safety investigator, she is no stranger to plane wrecks, but she takes pride in her work: making sure there are fewer crashes in the future.
“It was a terrible tragedy like all accidents are,” she said in an interview with The Montana Standard recently from her hangar in the general aviation area of the Bert Mooney Airport. “We’ve conducted a lot of outreach on it and there are a lot of lessons pilots can learn. Our purpose is to respond to aviation accidents and determine what happened. Why did this happen? In ‘why?’ we can prevent future accidents from happening.”
Dunks, who grew up in Rocker and graduated from Butte High School in 1995, is a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent government agency that investigates general aviation accidents. These include accidents in airplanes, helicopters and even gliders and balloons in an effort to learn what caused the accidents so they can be prevented in the future. She wants to make her passion for flying as safe as it can be so other people can experience the fun.
Dunks, who is in her 30s, knew as a young person she wanted to be a pilot.
“Like a few people my age, I was probably inspired by ‘Top Gun’,” she said with a laugh. “Of course after getting into flying I realized I have a real passion for the general aviation side of the industry.”
She attended Montana Tech for two years after graduating from high school before transferring to Westminster College in Salt Lake City where she majored in aviation operations.
“It’s interesting the different paths your life takes,” she said. “It was in my aviation law class I did research on the NTSB. Through the project I learned about this independent government agency that determines probable causes of accidents and I was inspired by the NTSB. I just had to figure out how to get there.”
After her time at Westminster, Dunks received a master’s degree in an online degree program in aeronautical science with specializations in human factors and safety from Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Dunks began her career with the NTSB in the Los Angeles regional office in 2002, and was appointed as an investigator in 2003.
“At that time there were many investigators in that office who had been with the agency for 15 to 20 years,” she said. “It was so exciting to me to learn from people who’d been doing it so long, to learn the tricks of the trade.”
The first accident Dunks went to was as a trainee a few weeks after she’d started with the NTSB. It was a mid-air collision in Carlsbad, Calif., and it was a little overwhelming at first.
“I was working with the investigator in charge,” she said. “I could see the importance of the work we do, coming in, taking control of the scene, uncovering what happened to prevent future events from occurring. I learned a lot. In any investigation you continue to learn a lot.”
Some things she can never forget.
“All investigations have impacted me in some way so they are difficult to categorize,” she said. “One was a Boeing 747 that was departing from LAX and experienced blown tires during takeoff, resulting in substantial damage to the aircraft and fortunately no injuries to the passengers. Responding to examine an airplane with landing gear larger than I am was quite an experience.”
BASED IN BUTTE
After working in L.A., Dunks moved to the Seattle regional office, and when the NTSB started a telecommuting program a few years ago, Dunks jumped at the chance to return to Butte. She lives here with her husband, Richard Nelson, who is an artist, and her 18-month-old son, Tommy Nelson.
“I am really happy to live and work here,” she said. “For kids growing up in this town, the opportunities are endless. If there’s something you want to do, you just need to figure out how to do it. It may not happen overnight, but rejection doesn’t mean ‘no.’ It means you need to figure out a different way to get where you need to be.”
Much like the community she calls home, Dunks has found her profession has given her many opportunities to pursue her passion for aviation.
“We have a wide range and a wide scope,” she said. “We do make safety recommendations, but for me, I find most helpful the outreach activities.”
Dunks talks to pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and others in the aviation industry about accidents and what information they can take away.
She’s doing a talk for flight instructors renewing their licenses next month in Helena about the Butte plane crash in 2009, so those pilots can learn from it.
The NTSB concluded that crash was likely caused by the fuel lines freezing up when a fuel additive to prevent icing was not added.
“Our focus is to improve safety within the aviation industry,” she said. “It’s difficult to deal with loss in the industry, but it’s helpful to see the safety changes that result in our work. As a pilot myself, I ask myself how I could get into a similar situation and what would make me continue the flight when I should have landed the airplane.”
LOVE OF FLYING
For the past year, Dunks has been on a detail to the director of the Office of Aviation Safety in Washington, D.C., manning the NTSB’s safety improvements program.
“I work with investigators on resolving safety issues identified through investigations, track safety recommendations and conduct outreach,” she said. “I can still be called to investigate as necessary, but these are my primary duties while on the detail.”
Dunks said her profession has enabled her to reach out to the general public not only about air safety, but about what a delight it can be to be a pilot. She’s been busy for the past few years completing her doctorate from Texas Tech in technical communications and rhetoric, focusing on government reports and rhetorics of safety. Now, she plans to enjoy spending more time with her family and getting back into flight instruction. She’s also working on the Lindbergh hangar project at the airport, restoring a hangar that once briefly housed Charles Lindbergh’s airplane the Spirit of St. Louis when Lindbergh stopped in Butte.
David Hoerner, the Montana Department of Transportation aeronautics division safety and education bureau chief, said having a person like Kristi Dunks in Butte is a real asset to the state.
“She’s someone we can call and connect with when we have an aircraft accident, or to learn from about an accident after it has happened so we can correct the issue so we don’t have it again,” he said. “She’ll come talk about accidents, teach instructors how things happen. It’s good to have that advice, that knowledge.”
Dunks said she’s looking forward to passing on her love of flying to others in the area.
“I love flying in the mountains and getting that perspective on things,” she said. “From the moment you push the airplane out of the hangar, it’s an exciting feeling. Learning how to fly can be a great hobby or a great career.”
— Reach Christensen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 406-496-5572.