Searchers found a crashed commercial cargo plane northeast of Dillingham early Saturday and pulled the bodies of an Anchorage pilot and copilot from the wreckage.
The Ace Air Cargo Beechcraft 1900 went down Friday morning about 20 miles from Dillingham, in Southwest Alaska. Alaska Air National Guard rescuers in a helicopter and plane searched that afternoon but were unable to find the crash site in thick clouds and, later that night, snowfall. Early Saturday, a crew spotted the plane broken into three parts, a spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers said. The HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter landed about 6 a.m., and its crew recovered two bodies, the Guard said.
Troopers identified the pilot as Jeff Day, 38, and the copilot as Neil Jensen, 21. Both were Anchorage residents. The bodies were flown to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and taken to the state medical examiner's office in Anchorage, troopers said.
The twin-engine plane was making the flight from King Salmon to Dillingham, about 70 miles to the northwest, Friday morning, according to Ace Air Cargo.
The Beechcraft failed to land after its crew announced their approach to the airport in Dillingham. The Federal Aviation Administration issued an alert that it was overdue at about 8:30 a.m. Friday. At about 9:15 a.m., an emergency locator beacon started transmitting from the Muklung Hills, 20 miles northeast of Dillingham, according to a troopers spokeswoman, who described the area as mountainous.
A plane crash in the Muklung Hills in August 2010 claimed five lives, including that of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.
A Dillingham-based trooper tried to reach the downed plane Friday by snowmachine but turned back due to poor weather. Rescue crews in a Pave Hawk and an HC-130 refueling plane arrived about 2 p.m. and started searching in the general vicinity of the beacon's signal, picked up by satellite, according to Kalei Rupp, spokeswoman for the Alaska Air National Guard. The searchers were unable to close in on the specific location of the plane without a more direct signal from the beacon -- possibly due to terrain blocking it or damage to the transmitter -- and because of the clouds obscuring their view, Rupp said. Snow started to fall that night, increasing the risk of icing on the aircraft, she said.
The first crews returned to base to rest, and fresh pararescuemen and combat rescue officers took their place in the helicopter and plane, Rupp said. The searchers were equipped with night-vision goggles and forward-looking infrared sensors and continued through the night, she said. They spotted the wreckage at 6:05 a.m. and were soon pulling the two men from the plane, she said.
"They were able to land nearby. At the request of Alaska State Troopers, because there was concern of possible incoming inclement weather, we recovered the bodies and brought them back to JBER," Rupp said.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators flew to the crash site in a helicopter Saturday to examine the debris, which they found on the south side of the Muklung Hills at about 2,000 feet, another NTSB investigator, Clint Johnson, said.
"It's badly fragmented and in three sections. It's strewn over a considerable distance there," Johnson said. "They were able to complete the on-scene portion of the investigation. What comes next is recovering the wreckage."
A helicopter was on standby in Dillingham, and Ace Air Cargo managers hoped the chopper could get to the plane sometime in the coming days, depending on the weather, Johnson said.
"There was a fair amount of cargo on board, so they wanted to get that cargo and mail recovered as soon as possible," he said.
Peter Jensen, the 21-year-old copilot's father, described his son Neil as a hardworking, honest and compassionate man in his dream job and intent on flying jets someday. Neil graduated from Service High School and earned a degree in aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, Peter Jensen said. He got the job as a copilot working for Ace in late November or early December, his father said.
"He liked it. He liked the pilots. He liked the flying. I've never seen him as happy as he was in the last month," Peter said. "It just seemed like everything was coming together for him."
Peter said he and his wife, as well as Neil's older sister and younger brother, were heartbroken. Still, Peter said, he did not blame his son's chosen profession.
"It's a tragic accident. I don't think it was any more dangerous than driving on an icy road," Peter said. "I'm glad he was doing what he wanted to do, and he seemed to be really enjoying it. I'm sad that he's dead, and I'll miss him a lot, but it could have just as easily been a car wreck."
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.