Investigators reach crash site of one of planes in Russian Mission midair collision

Federal investigators Thursday reached the crash site of one of the planes involved in Wednesday's deadly midair collision near Russian Mission, which claimed the lives of five men and left the wreckage of two small planes in rugged terrain near the Western Alaska village.

A Hageland Aviation Cessna 208 Caravan flying from Russian Mission to Marshall collided with a Piper PA-18 Super Cub operated by Renfro's Alaskan Adventures headed from Bethel, according to the Alaska Air National Guard. The crash, about 6 miles northwest of Russian Mission, occurred shortly before 11 a.m. Wednesday.

Alaska State Troopers say the Caravan was flown by Wasilla pilot Harry Wrase, 48, and carried passengers Steven Paul Andrew, 32, of Russian Mission and Aaron Jay Minock, 21, of Russian Mission. The Super Cub was flown by Montana resident Zach Justin Babat, 44, and carried Haines passenger Jeff Thomas Burruss, 40.

Renfro's manager Nate DeHaan said Burruss worked as a hunting and fishing guide for the company. State records show Burruss currently registered as an assistant guide.

Burruss is from Snohomish, Washington, graduating from high school there, said younger brother Rick Burruss. He worked as a painter by trade but a love of the outdoors instilled by a father to three sons brought him to Alaska in 2004.

"He just wanted to do the Alaska dream, and he ended up working for Renfro's, chasing that dream," Rick Buruss said. "He enjoyed doing it and became a superb hunting guide. There was nothing more he wanted to do in his life than go out and challenge Mother Nature."

The two men aboard the Super Cub were good friends, who went on many outdoor excursions together, Rick Buruss said.

A family member has been in touch with Renfro's but little else is known beyond the initial details released over the past two days.

"It's a dangerous thing these guys do, and I hope people understand that when they book these trips, the risk they take," Rick Buruss said.

Evelyn Wrase Brown, Harry Wrase's sister, described her brother as a passionate professional (pilot) and hobbyist (tournament chess player), as well as a loving father of two children, Matthew and Minnie.

His passion extended to family, co-workers, traveling, basketball and faith, Brown said.

"The list seems endless for a man that loved life," Brown said in a message.

Wrase worked hard to get to his current position, his sister said. He washed dishes and was employed as a prep cook for years, using his earnings to pay for flight training lessons. He became a bush pilot in 2000 and has flown for the past 16 years, she said.

"Harry was a lead pilot and his crew had so much respect for him. He loved his crew and company he worked for," Brown said.

Andrew, one of the passengers aboard the Caravan, worked as a ramp agent at Ravn since 2007, his father Tom Andrew said in a phone interview. His immediate family lives on the Kenai Peninsula, he said.

Tom Andrew worked as a public school teacher when his son was growing up and the family lived in multiple Alaska towns including Pilot Station and Kodiak, where Steven Andrew attended school.

The family is originally from Marshall. Steven was headed to the Yukon-Kuskokwim community to moose hunt. He considered the village home, his father said.

"He was a good, kind and loving person," Tom Andrew said.

Clint Johnson, the National Transportation Safety Board's Alaska chief, said Thursday that three NTSB investigators were working on the crash. Two Federal Aviation Administration investigators were also on-site Wednesday, according to FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer.

Crews were only able to reach the Cessna's crash site Wednesday evening, Johnson said. Poor visibility delayed a return trip Thursday morning, but NTSB investigators and troopers finally reached the site and focused on the Cessna through the day, he said.

"The conditions where this thing is are very challenging — high alders, steep mountainous terrain only accessible by helicopter," Johnson said. "These guys have their work cut out for them."

Crews were still trying to reach the Piper, he said Thursday evening. Investigators would likely make another attempt Friday.

Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said the troopers who responded to Russian Mission on Wednesday were involved with the recovery of bodies from the crashed aircraft, a task that was continuing Thursday.

Johnson said the Cessna operated by Hageland was equipped with map displays for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, which lets pilots see the locations of other nearby aircraft on a screen similar to those used by air traffic controllers. He said initial indicators suggest the PA-18 was not equipped with the surveillance system but that needs to be confirmed on site.

ADS-B transmitters will be required for flight in many areas of U.S. airspace by 2020. Johnson said the technology is "widespread" in Alaska, but only displays the location of other ADS-B aircraft.

"Both aircraft have to be ADS-B equipped, so if one has it and the other doesn't, the one that has it won't see the other aircraft," Johnson said.

Hageland Aviation operator Ravn Alaska said in an email it continues to cooperate with the FAA and NTSB. The company established an emergency support number for family and friends of the crash victims at 888-346-7502.

"We continue to focus on assisting the families and friends of the victims of flight #3190," the release says.

Renfro's released a statement Thursday afternoon about the collision, along with photos of Babat and Burruss, on its Facebook page. The company also offered condolences to the three people killed on board the Hageland aircraft.

"There are no words to express the anguish felt by everyone within the Renfro's Alaskan Adventures family in the wake of this immense loss," Renfro's staff wrote. "Zach and Jeff were amazing men that lived life to the fullest and they will be sorely missed. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families and friends as well as those of Harry, Steven and Aaron. We greatly appreciate the support of the community during this difficult time."

The NTSB is preparing for an extended investigation of the wreckage, due to the difficult terrain and the two separate crash sites involved.

"Realistically, our guys will probably be out there through the weekend," Johnson said.