Pilot in fatal Southeast crash told investigator he flew into trees

Casey Grove
photo courtesy National Transportation Safety BoardNational Transportation Safety Board investigator-in-charge Brice Banning examines the wreckage of a Pacific Wings Dehavilland Beaver aircraft as it sits at the 1,000-foot level near Thunder Mountain, approximately 11 miles west of Petersburg, on Wednesday, June 5, 2013.
courtesy National Transportation
The wreckage of a Pacific Wings de Havilland Beaver floatplane sits at about 1,000 feet in trees near Thunder Mountain, east of Petersburg.
Photo courtesy Alaska State Troopers

The pilot of a flightseeing floatplane that crashed in Southeast Alaska this month, killing a passenger, told an accident investigator he flew the plane into a tree-covered mountain.

That's according to a preliminary report on the June 4 crash released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board. The single- engine de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, operated by Pacific Wings, hit the trees on a slightly foggy and rainy afternoon about 14 miles east of Petersburg while headed for an overflight of LeConte Glacier, the report says.

A Santa Fe, N.M., resident on the plane, 66-year-old Los Alamos National Laboratory engineer Thomas Rising, died in the crash. Two of the other five passengers, members of a Pennsylvania family, were seriously hurt and flown to Seattle for treatment. All of them had been on a high-end, low-passenger cruise ship, the Sea Bird, which is affiliated with National Geographic.

The pilot -- who was also injured and is not named in the NTSB report -- told an investigator it was his third flightseeing tour, and fourth flight, of the day, the report said. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, pilots on such flights are allowed eight flight hours per day. Pacific Wings' website says the company offers 45-minute flights to LeConte Glacier. The plane did not make it that far, the report says.

According to the NTSB report, the pilot said the weather was getting worse throughout the day: Clouds were hanging at about 2,000 feet and there was light rain and fog along the mountain ridges.

The plane was headed toward the glacier via Horn Cliffs, going through a mountain pass, the pilot told the accident investigator.

"He initiated a left turn to avoid rising terrain and subsequently impacted the tree-covered terrain. The pilot stated that there were no pre-accident mechanical anomalies that would have precluded normal operation," the report says.

Pacific Wings' real-time plane-tracking program lost contact with the Beaver, according to the report. When the company's operations director could not reach the pilot by radio, he called for a search, the report said.

A U.S. Coast Guard HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter and its crew flew from Sitka and homed in on an emergency locator beacon from the crashed plane, the Coast Guard said. The helicopter crew hoisted a rescuer down to the wreckage and lifted the injured survivors back up. In two trips, they delivered the passengers and pilot to Petersburg, a Coast Guard spokesman said.

It was getting late, weather was moving in, and the plane wreckage sat precariously atop a cliff among the trees, troopers said. The Coast Guard rescuers decided they had to leave Rising's body strapped in the plane and flew troopers, the accident investigator and volunteer mountaineers with Juneau Mountain Rescue to the crash site the next day to recover the body. The NTSB said they found the crashed plane at an altitude of about 912 feet.

"The team was unable to perform an in-depth wreckage examination on scene due to the instability of the wreckage," the report said. "A detailed wreckage exam is pending following recovery of the airplane."

In future reports on the crash, the NTSB will likely make a determination as to what, specifically, caused it.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.