Low-hanging clouds and snowfall prevented military rescuers from reaching a downed cargo plane in Southwest Alaska or learning the fate of its pilot and copilot by nightfall Friday.
The twin-engine Beechcraft 1900, owned by Ace Air Cargo, is thought to be on the ground about 20 miles northeast of Dillingham, where it went down while approaching the city's airport sometime before 8:30 a.m. Friday. An Alaska Air National Guard helicopter sent from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, about 330 miles away near Anchorage, hovered over the plane Friday afternoon but the chopper's crew could not see through the clouds, Air National Guard spokeswoman Kalei Rupp said. The helicopter and a plane supporting it left the area at about 4 p.m. to refuel and were back searching as of 7 p.m., Rupp said.
Because they had been unable to see the terrain below them, it was too dangerous to attempt a landing or lower rescuers to the ground, Rupp said.
"Our crews got on scene but the cloud ceiling is very low," she said. "They can't see the ground to assess the situation."
Rupp said fresh teams on another helicopter and plane would likely be sent to take over for the search personnel working late Friday, if needed.
Ace Air Cargo said a pilot and copilot were on board the Beechcraft. A weather station at the airport reported light rain and snow about the time the plane went down, with wind at 17 mph gusting to 26 mph and seven miles visibility.
The Beechcraft's pilot radioed the Dillingham airport to say the plane was approaching for a landing Friday morning, according to spokespeople for the Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska Air National Guard. At about 8:30 a.m., the Federal Aviation Administration issued an alert that the plane had not landed, Rupp said. An emergency locator beacon on the plane indicated it was about 20 miles northeast of Dillingham, Rupp said.
The plane is down in the Muklung Hills, troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said. A plane crash in the same area in 2010 killed five people, including former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.
An Alaska state trooper trying to reach the plane on a snowmachine had to turn back to Dillingham because of the poor weather, Peters said. Others, including firefighters and medics gearing up to head out for a search, stayed in Dillingham, she said.
"It's in mountainous terrain and the weather's bad," Peters said. "They have very wet snow and thick fog."
At about 11:30 a.m., the Air National Guard's Rescue Coordination Center in Anchorage dispatched an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter with a rescue team on board and an HC-130 Hercules refueling plane carrying another team, Rupp said. The Coast Guard also sent an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter with rescuers from Kodiak, she said.
It's unclear if the downed cargo plane crashed or made an emergency landing. Rupp said she was unaware of any radio traffic from the pilot or copilot.
"Once it makes contact and says it's on approach, if it doesn't land within a certain amount of time, the FAA puts out an overdue-aircraft alert. So that's what triggered that," Rupp said. "Since nobody has actually gotten to the site or seen the site, we don't necessarily know if the plane has crashed or what."
The Coast Guard helicopter arrived first and was relieved by the Air National Guard chopper about 2 p.m., Rupp said. The low-hanging clouds and, later, snowfall made it impossible to see anything on the ground, she said.
While satellites showed the general location of the plane's beacon, the searchers could not pick up its signal while flying above the area, Rupp said. That could be due to terrain blocking the signal or damage to the beacon, she said.
About 4 p.m., the Pave Hawk flew to Dillingham to refuel and the Hercules went to King Salmon to do the same, Rupp said. They planned to continue searching into Friday night.
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com or 257-4589.
By CASEY GROVE