A pilot in an Alaska Air Taxi plane walked away uninjured after crashing into a heavily forested wildlife preserve on the Kenai Peninsula while en route from Seldovia to Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage in early July, officials said.
"It was pretty much a miracle," said Chris Johnson, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge supervisory law enforcement officer.
The Cessna 207 departed Seldovia at 9:30 a.m. on July 3, said National Transportation Safety Board investigator Noreen Price. The pilot, whom the NTSB did not identify, was heading for Anchorage, Price said.
According to the pilot's statements to NTSB, he arrived at the Trapper Joe Lake area, part of the wildlife refuge, before crossing over Turnagain Arm, and the weather conditions deteriorated, Price said.
"The (cloud) ceiling had deteriorated where it was getting very low," she said. "He turned right to avoid that weather and impacted the rising terrain east of Trapper Joe Lake."
The plane crashed on a densely forested hill around 10:30 a.m. — both wings and the tail were ripped off in the process, Price said. The fuselage came to rest between two trees.
The pilot was uninjured and he climbed out of the wreckage, Price said.
"It was pretty amazing that he survived without any injuries, because the airplane is badly damaged, and he hit an area of very dense large trees. You can hardly even see the plane from the sky; it's under such a thick canopy," Price said.
The pilot called 911 using his cellphone, Price said. The screen had been smashed during the impact, but the phone's voice commands still functioned, according to Johnson, the refuge officer.
Initially, the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center launched a helicopter to find the pilot, said Alaska National Guard spokeswoman Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead.
"Due to weather the helicopter was unable to locate the survivor," Olmstead said.
When Alaska State Troopers called the refuge and told Johnson about the crash around 11:45 a.m., Johnson initially got conflicting information about the response, he said, but he decided to head out toward Trapper Joe Lake to see if he could help.
"I've been working at the refuge for 28 years and know what that country's like. It's quite a ways back in there," Johnson said.
He drove along Mystery Creek Road and then followed the backcountry road running parallel to the natural gas pipeline cutting through the refuge. After driving for about an hour and a half, he reached the spot closest to the lake, according to GPS coordinates.
Johnson stopped his truck, turned the sirens on and began preparing for a hike toward Trapper Joe Lake, he said. He turned the sirens on and off three times while preparing, using the silence to listen for the pilot, he said.
The final time he turned off the siren, Johnson said, he heard someone yelling. He found the pilot in the woods nearby, he said.
"I was really surprised he made it, practically unscathed," Johnson said. "(The pilot) was very grateful. He was pretty shocked, pretty shaken up, but uninjured."
The pilot told Johnson he'd had control of the plane while descending and landed between two large spruce trees; he could hear the RCC helicopter hovering somewhere overhead, but could never see it. The pilot was able to follow the sound of the sirens, "which he said was very reassuring."
The owner of the Cessna, Jack Barber of Alaska Air Taxi, said the plane wasn't on a company flight when it crashed. He is arranging for the removal of the wreckage from the refuge. He declined to comment further other than to also express his disbelief.
"I will tell you he's lucky to be alive," he said. "It's not often you hear about someone walking away from something like that."