SOLDOTNA -- With an air taxi business more than two decades old, Rediske Air and Walter Rediske, the pilot of the DHC-3 de Havilland Otter that crashed on takeoff at Soldotna Municipal Airport Sunday, July 7, had forged a reputation for being competent and responsible, according to acquaintances and fellow Kenai pilots.
Walter's father, Charlie Rediske, started the air taxi business in 1991. Walter and his sister, Lyla, took over the business when their father died in 2001. The business has thrived, with six airplanes, offices in Nikiski and Anchorage, and expanding charter contracts -- including flying passengers and supplies on vacation excursions all over the Kenai Peninsula and across Cook inlet, as well as flying oil field cargo and workers.
"It's a top-notch outfit, top-notch pilots, maintenance is top notch — super, actually," said Jim Herrick, of Nikiski, a pilot and 60-year certified aviation mechanic. "Everything there is No. 1. The way the maintenance is done — it's done right to the letter, and there's all kinds of good pilots there. Willy was a fantastic pilot."
Kelli Brewer, of Alaska West Air in Nikiski, with husband, Doug Brewer, said Alaska West and Rediske fly different types of services — Alaska West on floats and Rediske on wheels, but the local flying community is small. Although she didn't know Rediske well herself, she knew of his reputation.
"When he took over Rediske I've seen that company grow, they've got a really successful business and they have got some good contracts. From everything I know of him, he's just a really, really nice man. It's a shock and it's a sad day for the whole flying community," Brewer said.
The small-town nature of Nikiski, particularly the aviation portion of it, might amplify factor any negative comments. Brewer said she's never heard an ill word about Rediske.
"I believe he was pretty careful, he ran a good business and was a really good man, and that's a sad thing. You hate to see that happen to good people," she said.
The Soldotna airport reopened Monday, and Brewer was parked by a friend's plane for a while early Monday evening when the plane bearing the National Transportation Safety Bureau crew arrived.
"I was sitting there looking at the crash thinking about the fact that my husband's coming home tonight, and what it would be if it wasn't Willy. Just sitting there doing some soul searching. It's a sad, tragic thing. He had three small kids and a wife who loved him," Brewer said. "There are so many families hurting right now."
Doug Weathers is another longtime Nikiski pilot. One of his sons attended school with Rediske, and Weathers has known Willy and his family more than 20 years.
"Most people that have aircraft, they know each other. His dad was a really nice guy, and I knew Will. From what I could see of his operation, his planes always looked well kept up and they took good care of their machinery. Will was a nice person, he wasn't no hot shot or nothing like that. He was just real down to earth and very businesslike about things. In fact, his whole family was that way," Weathers said.
Given that Rediske flew oil-field contracts, Weathers thinks that's a good indication of strong maintenance practices.
"If you're flying for an oil company you'll take care of your machinery or you won't fly for them, because I think they pretty well come in and audit your stuff to make sure they're up to snuff. And (Rediske) hauls a lot of oil field workers," Weathers said.
Add to that the FAA requirements of commercial operations, he said.
"When you own an airplane and you fly commercial, you don't just work on it when you get to feeling like you ought to or when it isn't running right. You do the inspections on them — inspections after inspections, and they've gotta be all documented in a log book, and you gotta have them books open to the FAA, and when they walk in they better be up to speed," Weathers said. "If you want to do shoddy stuff, you probably can. But you won't get by with it for very long. You won't get by with it as long as Will's been doing work. They've been on the Peninsula for a long time and I've never heard anything negative about Will or his dad or his family."
Weathers hopes the public keeps that in mind during the crash investigation. Many things could be classified as "pilot error" that don't necessarily mean anything egregious was done.
"When you say 'pilot error' people are going say, 'Oh my God, it's all his fault,' and it's not. Pilot error could be a hundred different things. What the FAA calls pilot error could mean I didn't check every nut and bolt in the airplane before I took off. But it could take months to check every nut and bolt in an airplane. When you get into turbine airplanes, they're high-performance airplanes. They've got lots of horsepower and they get thousands of hours out of an engine but, you know, sometimes if things go bad, they go really bad," Weathers said.
"Rediske looks like they ran a straight show … I've never heard anybody say anything negative about his flying habits and how he handled the airplanes and how he did business," he said.
For now, as investigation progresses, grieving family and friends and a shocked community are able to only grasp at answers to help fill a gaping loss.
"I've been around airplanes for the last 40 years and I've seen quite a few accidents," Weathers said. "And they're more tragic when they're close to you. And this is just a bad, bad wreck — that's for sure. The community will miss them, I can tell you that."
Jenny Neyman is editor of the Redoubt Reporter that covers the Kenai Peninsula. Used with permission.