Pilot in fatal crash near Cantwell was 'self-fly' tour guide

Michelle Theriault Boots
Courtesy of Alaska State Troopers

Three people who died in a small plane crash Friday south of Cantwell have been identified as the owner of a Fairbanks-based flying tour company and his two passengers.

Alaska State Troopers said Sunday that the remains of Dale Hemman, 61, of Steilacoom, Wash., and passengers John Ellenberg, 74, of Greenville, S.C. and Laurie Buckner, 52, of Simpsonville, S.C., had been recovered from the crash site, in area of brush and scattered trees near Mile 195.5 of the Parks Highway.

Hemman is the owner of Let's Fly Alaska, which describes itself as the first "guided, self-fly" tour company in Alaska.

On Friday, Hemman was to lead a group of 19 small planes from Fairbanks to Homer, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigator Clint Johnson.

"They took off from Fairbanks a little ahead of the group," Johnson said. "The intent was to do a weather check through the pass."

Other pilots on the tour reported the plane missing when it failed to return from the weather scouting trip.

A fire crew from Cantwell discovered the burning wreckage of the twin-engine Beechcraft Baron airplane about 500 feet northwest of the Parks Highway at about noon Friday.

It's not clear what caused the plane to crash, Johnson said.

Investigators are reviewing weather conditions at the time of the crash and trying to piece the wreckage of the plane back together.

"(The plane's wreckage) was highly fragmented," he said. "That's indicative of a high-speed impact."

It's also not clear whether Ellenberg and Buckner were paying customers on the flying tour, which is described on the company's website as a 13-day trip starting and ending in Olympia, Wash. with planned stops in British Columbia, Yukon Territory, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Homer and Ketchikan.

Customers on Let's Fly Alaska trips pilot their own small planes with Hemman and other guides planning routes, arranging lodging and food and briefing tour group members on weather, topography and safety, according to the company. A call to the company's Fairbanks office was not answered Sunday.

Friday's crash wasn't the first for Hemman, who described himself on the company website as having 45 years of military, commercial and aerial fire-fighting pilot experience, much of it in Alaska.

On July 26, 2012, the Beechcraft Bonanza Hemman was flying lost engine power just after it took off from a Fairbanks airport, according to a NTSB crash report on the incident.

Hemman was able to land the plane in a field next to the runway, the report said. The wings and fuselage were damaged but no one was hurt according to the NTSB. Investigators couldn't find a cause for the sudden engine failure.

Hemman posted a startling video of the 2012 flight and crash landing taken with an onboard camera to YouTube in May.

"This video is intended to show that you can walk away from a bad situation if you continue to fly the airplane until it stops," he wrote in an introduction.

The video went viral, garnering more than 89,000 views since May 17.

Investigators hope that similar onboard cameras on the B-55 Beech Baron recovered near Cantwell will help explain what caused the flight to go down, Johnson said.


Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.