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Victims identified in fatal Cantwell plane crash, pilot posted viral video weeks ago

Laurel Andrews
The plane crash wreckage near Cantwell on Friday. Hemman’s plane has been identified as a white twin-engine B-55 Beech Baron with two blue stripes running the length of the plane, tail number N5JG. Courtesy Alaska State Troopers

Alaska State Troopers have released the names of the victims who perished in a plane crash near Cantwell on Friday. The pilot was the same man who had only weeks before posted a viral, first-hand video of an engine-out, emergency landing that he walked away from last summer.

The victims of Friday's crash have been identified as pilot Dale Hemman, 61, of Steilacoom, Wash., and passengers John Ellenberg, 74, of Greenville, S.C, and Laurie Buckner, 52, of Simpsonville, S.C. Their remains were recovered from the plane crash on Friday, and the next of kin have been notified.

Hemman was the director of operations at Let’s Fly Alaska, a flight-seeing company that organizes sight-seeing squadrons in which visitors can fly their own airplanes across remote parts of Alaska and Canada. Group participants are required to have a valid pilot's license, and the company recommends having 200 hours of flying experience.

On Friday, Hemman was flying a lead plane in the tour group that was heading to Homer from Fairbanks. 

The tour group consisted of 18 or 19 planes. Hemman was flying ahead of the rest of the group, “making a weather check through the pass,” at the Alaska Range, said Clint Johnson, chief of the Alaska office of the National Transportation Safety Board.

“When he didn’t return and they didn’t hear from him, that’s when the search started.”

Hemman’s twin engine Beechcraft Baron aircraft crashed into the ground 500 feet off the road, near mile 195.5 of the highway that connects Fairbanks and Anchorage.

“We theorize that he was probably following the Parks Highway,” when he crash about 20 miles south of Cantwell, Johnson said.

Fire from the crash spread to brush and scattered trees nearby but was extinguished Friday. A trooper from Cantwell arrived at the site about half an hour after the fire was reported; trooper spokesperson Beth Ipsen said the debris field was 500 to 700 feet long. 

“Extensive fragmentation of the airplane” occurred, Johnson said.

On May 17, Hemman posted a video of a plane crash in Fairbanks last summer that went viral. The engine of his plane "quit without warning about 200 feet above the ground,” just after take-off. He wrote that he posted the video so other people could learn from it.

Hemman wrote that his flying credentials include “45 years of flying experience … retired military pilot (safety & instructor), former chief pilot for commercial 135 operations … and many years of aerial fire-fighting and other challenging flying jobs.”

The cause of Friday’s crash has not yet been identified.

Johnson said that the investigation is in its formative stages, and they do not have a sense yet of what caused the crash. An insurance company is on site investigating the crash on Sunday, and will send the wreckage to either Wasilla or Anchorage for the NTSB to being its investigation.

A preliminary report is expected on Tuesday or Wednesday. Normally the full course of an investigation takes about 9 months, but that may change, as “we don’t know exactly what we’re going to find,” he said.

Hemman’s plane has been identified as a white twin-engine B-55 Beech Baron with two blue stripes running the length of the plane, tail number N5JG.

Anyone with information about the plane crash are asked to called the Alaska State Troopers at (907) 451-4500 or the National Transportation Safety Board at (907) 271-5001.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com