NTSB: Fatal Merrill Field Crash Caused by Engine Failure

A preliminary report released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board confirms details of a fatal Merrill Field plane crash.

On Saturday, air traffic controllers at the airport just east of downtown Anchorage told 31-year-old pilot Robert Lilly to "go-around" because another plane was on the runway, according to the report written by investigator Joshua Cawthra.

That caused the Cessna 150L, owned by Lilly, a Big Lake resident, to lose power.

When the plane pulled up, "witnesses reported hearing the engine quit, which was followed by a steep left turn back to the airport," the report said. "During the turn, the airplane rolled to the left and continued to descend, and it subsequently collided with an area of grass-covered terrain west of runway 25."

The crash killed Lilly and his 27-year-old girlfriend, Jessi Nelsen, of Anchorage.

Steve Kim, a close friend of Lilly and Nelsen, said the two had been in a relationship for more than a year and enjoyed exploring the state.

“They flew right around the state together on a daily basis whenever they had a chance,” Kim said.

According to the NTSB report, the couple took off from Wasilla without a flight plan just after 3 p.m. and about half an hour before the crash. Flying conditions were ideal: clear skies all around, light winds and the temperature peaked just shy of 70 degrees.

"At this point right now we've pretty much been able to eliminate the fact that weather played a part in this," said NTSB Spokesman Clint Johnson.  "We're still looking very much into the human performance element of the investigation."

Kim said Lilly was about to begin his career as an airline pilot for a company based in Homer later this week, and Nelsen was a longshoreman in Seward.

"I lost my best friend.  Bob and I had a special relationship, like the one that I had with my father," said Robert's dad John Lilly.

“Both of them were just super nice people,” Kim said. “I don’t think you could meet people like them everyday…just really kind, always generous with their time and everything.”