A 38-year-old man from Washington state died when a commercial plane carrying 42 people went off the end of the runway Thursday afternoon at Unalaska’s airport, officials say.
A critically injured passenger was flown to Anchorage. Nine others were also hurt, according to the city’s Department of Public Safety. Responders had to extricate one patient and evacuated the others.
The plane left Anchorage at 3:15 p.m. with three crew and 39 passengers. It arrived at the airport near the tip of the Aleutian Islands just after 5:30 p.m.
Authorities say it’s not yet clear what caused the plane to go off the end of the runway and across a road, coming to a stop just short of the water with its nose hanging over an embankment.
Photos and video footage shows a broken propeller on the plane’s left engine next to a torn section of fuselage. Passengers said the plane, coming in for a landing on a second pass, rocketed down the runway as if it had no brakes.
One man, flying with his wife, daughter and granddaughter, told Alaska Public Media he thought the plane was going into the water. Then the pilot seemed to jerk the plane to the right and it skidded to a stop, Patrick Lee said. Something crashed through the side of the plane into the cabin, Lee said. A man near the family was knocked unconscious.
Cordova’s high school swim team was on the plane. There were no reports of serious injuries among team members.
The mother of one swim team member said a piece of metal was embedded in her son’s leg during the crash.
Her 16-year-old son is staying in Unalaska until Sunday, when he’s supposed to fly to Anchorage, Lisa Carroll said. She and his father will meet him at the airport and he’ll get the piece of metal removed from the soft tissue of his leg Monday.
“He’s fine but shaken,” Carroll said in an email Friday. “I’m just thankful for all the emergency responders and citizens of Unalaska who responded to the scene ... As a parent I am shaken, but again God is good and I’m glad there were boots on the ground taking care of all the injured. My thoughts and prayers go out to all involved.”
Unalaska’s airport is known for turbulence and windy conditions that sometimes turn planes around before they can land. A relatively short runway rimmed by water can complicate operations for pilots of larger, heavier planes, several aviators said Friday.
A team of National Transportation Safety Board investigators and others arrived in Unalaska on Saturday, according to a city official.
The plane crashed at around 5:45 p.m. Thursday after a missed approach on the first attempt to land, according to preliminary information from Clint Johnson, Alaska chief for the National Transportation Safety Board.
“The accident happened on the second landing attempt," Johnson said.
Weather at the airport around the time of the crash shifted from northwest winds at 13 mph around 5 p.m. to west-northwest winds at 25 mph with gusts to 31 mph and light rain by 6 p.m., according to National Weather Service data.
The only runway at Unalaska is 4,500 feet long, but only 3,900 feet is available for landing, according to Federal Aviation Administration information.
Federal investigators will determine a probable cause for the accident, a process that can take a year or more.
Oltman died Thursday night, according to a statement from RavnAir Group, which owns the company operating the plane. RavnAir president Dave Pflieger extended “deepest sympathies and condolences” to his family and loved ones.
“Our entire team is devastated by this tragic incident,” Pflieger said.
The Unalaska airport — the only quick way in or out of the community of 4,500 built around the fishing industry — was closed while the plane remained in place. Unalaska city clerk Marjie Veeder said in a statement that the plane was being removed from the roadway Saturday, and the runway may reopen afterward.
Additionally, absorbent fuel booms were used to contain and remove fuel that had leaked from the plane into the water and fuel was removed from the plane, according to Veeder, who was also serving as the city’s public information officer fielding media calls for a story getting national attention.
A mix of local residents, people coming in for work, and members of the Cordova swim team arriving for a local meet made up the passengers on the plane, Veeder said. Cordova swimmers and coaches left on a flight to Anchorage on Friday.
The Unalaska Fire Department arrived about five minutes after the crash and transported seven patients to the Iliuliuk Clinic and four others were brought to the clinic by personal vehicle, according to public safety officials. Injuries ranged from minor to critical.
The investigation is being run from the National Transportation Safety Board headquarters because it involves a commuter air carrier and someone died in the crash, Johnson said. An Anchorage-based investigator is on the team, which also includes experts in airworthiness and operations as well as John Lovell, the the investigator in charge.
The flight, PenAir Flight 3296, was sold by Alaska Airlines, which markets flights to Dutch Harbor. But the actual operator is more complicated.
The carrier is owned by Ravn Air Group and not PenAir, an Alaskan flying institution started in 1955 that filed for bankruptcy in 2017. A company called Peninsula Aviation Services Inc., which is affiliated with Ravn, bought PenAir’s assets last year in Chapter 11 proceedings.
The name on the federal certificate as the operator of the plane involved in the crash is Peninsula Aviation, a Ravn spokeswoman said. But information distributed after the crash by Ravn and Alaska Airlines repeatedly names PenAir as the operator of the flight.
Orin Seybert, who founded PenAir, said his company had nothing to do with the crash except for providing the leased Swedish Saab 2000 twin-engine turboprop that’s in the process of getting transferred over to the new owner.
PenAir did not provide or train the pilots, Seybert said.
"I really hate that it happened,” he said. “But this accident was not PenAir’s fault even though it was one of our airplanes. That was a total Ravn operation.”
Ravn operates several Alaska-based air services under its brand: Corvus Airlines (the former Era Aviation), Hageland Aviation Services and Frontier Flying Service. The company overhauled its management team in 2017 following scrutiny for a 2016 crash in Southwest Alaska that killed two pilots and their passenger.
Alaska Airlines’ usual operations between Unalaska and Anchorage were suspended through Monday, with tentative plans to resume as early as Tuesday, Veeder said.