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Fortunate finish to collision between plane and boat on Naknek River on Sunday

Laurel Andrews
The Cessna 207 floats overturned in the Naknek River. Ten people involved in the collision were safely recovered from the water thanks to nearby fishing boats that came to their aid. Courtesy Alaska State Troopers

A collision between a Cessna 207 float plane and a guide's fishing boat on the Naknek River on Sunday afternoon ended with only minor injuries reported from three of the 10 people involved.

“I didn’t see him, he didn’t see me,” pilot Ray "Sonny" Petersen said Monday of the collision with the fishing boat. “I’m just very glad that nobody was seriously hurt. I don’t even know where I hit him for sure.” 

Petersen, 62, owns Katmai Air Services. On Sunday around noon, Petersen was piloting a Cessna 207 float plane with six passengers onboard when it collided with a guide's fishing boat on the Naknek River. The boat was being driven by Ted Gibson, 29, of Wisconsin.  

The Cessna was taking off upriver from the boat when the collision occurred.  “The three occupants of the guide boat were thrown from the vessel and into the river,” Alaska State Troopers reported Sunday. “The Cessna 207 then flipped upside down in the river with seven people on board.”

After the plane flipped, water started to flow into the cabin, Petersen said. “I opened up the forward front door and I was pulling people out,” as passengers inched along the ceiling of the overturned plane to climb out.

Petersen wasn’t sure how fast water was coming. “Time seems to fly at different speeds,” during emergencies, he said.

After everyone was safely evacuated, “a lot of boats came around” to help the passengers, Petersen said. Two passengers from the plane and one from the boat were taken to Naknek Clinic for evaluations, but all injuries appeared to be minor, troopers reported.

All six passengers on Petersen’s plane were out-of-state tourists, and four were international travelers. He checked in with the passengers Monday and, “all appear to be doing good,” he said.

Petersen, who's been flying since 1969, said he has never been in an accident before. “It wasn’t any fun.”

Petersen’s father Ray Petersen was an acclaimed pioneer Bush pilot, inducted into the Alaska Aviation Museum Hall of of Fame in 2001. The elder Petersen came to Alaska in 1934, and by 1947 had created Northern Consolidated Airlines. “Research indicates that Mr. Petersen created the first lodges in the rich Bristol Bay watershed that had sport fishing as the only source of revenue,” Katmai Air Service writes. “Ray created the standard of lodge operations against which all other lodges are judged today.”

After the incident, Petersen said he was “fine,” and on Monday afternoon he had already flown a plane from King Salmon to his Anchorage offices. Petersen’s Cessna 207 was damaged, and he said the aircraft's fragile wings had scraped the bottom of the river following the accident.

Both the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.

NTSB investigator Clint Johnson said that the agency is waiting for the plane to be recovered from the Naknek River. The agency still needed to interview Petersen, Gibson, passengers and witnesses on Monday afternoon.

“We’re very fortunate we didn’t have any serious injuries or fatalities,” Johnson said. The investigation is now in its formative stages, and a preliminary report will be issued soon. 

A final investigative report is generally issued six to nine months after the incident.

The collision comes on the heels of a fatal Soldotna crash that left 10 people dead earlier this month, during one of Alaska's most fatal flying seasons.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com