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Alaska Life

How to tow an airplane: Watch as this helicopter flies away with a wrecked Cessna

  • Author: Kyle Hopkins
  • Updated: April 17, 2018
  • Published April 16, 2018

This story has been updated.

In a state with a many plane crashes but few roads, there are only so many ways for safety inspectors and insurance companies to haul a damaged airplane home.

"Seventy-five percent of our aircraft recoveries, whether they are fatal or non fatal are done by helicopter," said Clint Johnson, a former helicopter pilot who flew airplane salveage missions for his family business before becoming an inspector for the National Transportation Safety Board in Alaska.

This video by Sammy Panik, filmed by Saturday about two miles from the North Slope village of Atqasuk, shows how a recovery works.

The mail-run flight had crashed on frozen tundra Wednesday morning. The pilot of the Cessna 208B Caravan was the only person on board and survived the accident.

Panik, 24, said he and another man were hired to clean up the area. Panik drove his snowmachine to the crash site and spent hours bagging frozen cans of Dr. Pepper and Coca-cola and mail-order packages scattered among the debris.

"We drained all the fuel from the wings in the plane into drums, and we took apart the inside of the plane," he said. Removing the seats made the aircraft lighter for hauling.

The cause of the crash is under investigation. A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board issued Tuesday says the pilot blamed the crash on an unexpected shutoff of the autopilot system.

As for the recovery process, Johnson said that aircraft wreckage is typically the property of a carrier's insurance company. In this case, the plane was hauled to Utqiagvik where inspectors will be able to access the wreckage as part of the ongoing investigation.

Flying a helicopter with a nearly intact airplane slung beneath it requires special care, Johnson said.

"If you get going a flying speed, it starts flying," he said.

If this business – essentially serving as a tow truck company for hauling wrecked planes by helicopter – sounds like the makings of a reality show, one NTSB investigator said it's already been tried.

Noreen Price, who will travel to Utqiagvik to inspect the wreckage, said a production company gave it a shot in the Lower 48.

"I don't think it ever got off the ground, but I think they made a pilot," she said.

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