First aviation official on a plane

crash seen often is Independence man

INDEPENDENCE -- Harry Malette had been watching news coverage on July 16 of the Hillsboro Airshow accident in which a vintage British Hawker-Hunter jet crashed after takeoff. It fell into a residential neighborhood, killing the pilot and destroying a home.

So he wasn't surprised when the phone calls that interrupted his breakfast the following morning were from insurance agents and investigators of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), requesting his presence at the crash site.

Malette, 65, sells fuel and runs a flight instruction school at Independence State Airport. He's also the owner of H.L.M Air Services Inc., one of only a handful of businesses in Oregon specializing in aircraft accident reconstruction and salvage.

During the past 18 years, Malette has been contracted to comb through and recover evidence from more than 1,000 crash sites across North America, from remote wilderness in Alaska, to dried-out lakebeds in Mexico, to a tiny island off Panama.

He has guided a news crew from ABC's "20/20" into the Sierra Nevada mountain range for a story on the survivor of an accident he had worked.

The Hillsboro scene was "a zoo," said Malette, who flew from his home in the airpark in Independence to the Portland suburb to assist in the recovery process.

He hired private security to relieve police officers who had guarded the site for 16 hours, sifted through rubble and hauled what was left of the jet on flatbed trucks to his 60-by-80 foot hangar at the Independence airport.

The scorched and mangled debris now sits in three large boxes and awaits reconstruction by federal investigators who will try to determine the probable cause of the crash. It could take months or even years for an answer, Malette said.

Aviation salvage is a complicated job that takes experience, the right connections and a willingness to depart to a crash half a continent away at a moment's notice, Malette said.

"It's a job that needs to be done," he added.

A Southern California native, Malette ran a successful machine and automotive shop in Santa Paula for more than 20 years. At age 45 he began flying, sold the business and purchased a hangar at a local airport.

The transition to aircraft recovery started with an accident at his local airport, when an insurance company asked to store a wrecked plane inside his hangar for later examination. As more accidents occurred, he kept getting requests.

"Soon, I had a whole lot of planes in storage," he said.

He decided to carve a niche business out for himself. He undertook training in aviation accident investigation at the University of Southern California, then opened two H.L.M. offices in California.

He moved to Independence after discovering the airpark while visiting a friend, and opened a third branch here.

Plane crash investigation is an exhaustive process that starts the moment an aircraft hits the ground, Malette said.

Local law enforcement must contact the NTSB, which deploys "go-teams" that respond to and attempt to determine the probable cause of an accident by poring over crash evidence and considering environmental conditions, problems that can be traced to a plane's manufacture, and other factors.

NTSB can designate other agencies and private corporations as parties in an investigation. Malette is often contracted by the government or insurance companies to remove the plane and secure it after the initial field examination.

Malette currently has plane wreckage from 15 crashes -- he has had as many as 56 -- in hangars and portable containers at his Independence and California branches, awaiting reconstruction by federal officials. Some items are locked away and can't be viewed without a court order.

"To work (in aircraft salvage) you need to be bondable and most of all, honest," he said. "I sign for evidence when I take it. If I lose a piece of something, I'm culpable."

Once Malette receives a call, he and his wife, Joan, orchestrate the recovery process by arranging equipment rentals. Then they assemble a recovery team of search and rescue workers, law enforcement professionals and others he has networked with over the years to retrieve the aircraft.

"We respond anytime the phone rings, 24/7," Malette said. "I've been up in the mountains recovering planes on Thanksgiving and Christmas."

Every job is different. Some wrecks, such as the Hillsboro incident, can be worked using trucks. Others require the use of a helicopter. Malette once retrieved a plane that had sat on the peak of a 9,500-foot mountain in the Sierras for eight years.

One of his most memorable cases involved a life flight chopper that crashed in a blizzard in the Sierras near Reno after responding to car accident. The pilot, nurse and the victim of the original accident were all killed. Malette recruited a company of Marines who had been training in the area to assist in the recovery.

"It took almost eight months to dig all of the parts out of the snow," he said.

Between the salvage operation and his duties as ISA's fixed base operator, Malette has precious little time for anything else, including recreational flying.

But he doesn't complain. The job has taken him to exotic locales. As if to illustrate his point, he shows off photos of sandy beaches and friendly indigenous people during a plane recovery contract on the tiny (1,500 feet long) island of Porvenir off Panama's Atlantic coast.

After a few days in paradise, he repaired the damaged aircraft and flew it back to the United States.

"When I moved to Oregon, I was going to retire, but we're far from being a laid-back retired couple," he said. "I'm basically working for fun."

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