‘I’m starting to lose this airplane’: One pilot lands safely, another dies after collision

Update 11 a.m. Thursday:

Clint Johnson, chief of the National Transportation Safety Board Alaska Region, said Thursday that Spernak Airways, based at Merrill Field in Anchorage, said the pilot killed in Wednesday's collision worked for the company.

The body of Wasilla pilot James Poelman was recovered late Wednesday after his plane crashed in water near the mouth of the Susitna River, according to Alaska State Troopers. Poelman's body was turned over to the State Medical Examiner Office.

Some of the plane wreckage remained in the water Thursday morning, Johnson said.

An investigation into the cause and circumstances of the crash is ongoing, troopers said.

Wednesday night story:

A Wasilla pilot died in a midair collision between two small planes Wednesday near the mouth of the Susitna River, officials said.


James Poelman, 56, died in the crash, Alaska State Troopers said. He was the pilot and sole occupant of one of the planes, troopers said.

The other plane, a Cessna 175, made an emergency landing on a runway at Anchorage's Lake Hood Seaplane Base. The pilot, who told an investigator he had been nearly "nose to nose" with the other plane moments before impact, walked away without injury, officials said.

Poelman's plane crashed near the mouth of the Susitna River, across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, officials said.

The wrecked plane, a Cessna, was found submerged in the water. Clint Johnson, chief of the National Transportation Safety Board Alaska Region, said a good Samaritan landed at the site and told investigators he saw one deceased person in the aircraft.

The surviving pilot was forced to land in Anchorage on a single wheel in what one onlooker described as a belly slide. One side of the plane's landing gear was "sheared off" by the impact, Johnson said. [See video above.]

The crash was first reported to troopers at 12:13 p.m.

Johnson said investigators believed the submerged plane is a Cessna 206 or 207.

Speaking to reporters at Lake Hood on Wednesday, NTSB's Johnson said the pilot who landed safely told investigators that he had been flying from a remote fishing spot back to Anchorage when the collision occurred.

The pilot "saw the (other) airplane at the last moment, basically nose to nose, struck the airplane, and made a couple of circles to try and assess what the condition of the other airplane was on the ground," Johnson said.

‘I’m starting to lose this airplane’ 

The moments after the collision can be heard in an audio feed from the Lake Hood air traffic controller. In that clip, the surviving pilot can be heard giving his call sign of 9423B.

"I've been involved in an accident. I'm missing my left gear," the pilot tells air traffic controllers.

A second plane tells air traffic controllers that he is following the damaged plane. In the recording, there is talk about helping the pilot land safely on Lake Hood. Air traffic controllers ask the pilot in the damaged plane to climb to 1,500 feet altitude and circle the landing strip.

"I got a real bad vibration, I can't climb any higher," the pilot replies.

"No worries, just come inbound and over the strip," the air traffic controller says.

"I'm starting to lose this airplane, so I'm going to go right into the strip," the pilot replies.

But the pilot then regains some control, saying that he has dealt with the vibration and is feeling OK.

An air traffic controller tells him to stay at his current altitude, and that they are coordinating emergency response vehicles. They confirm that his left landing gear is missing and his right nose gear is bent.


Then they clear the pilot to land. Shortly afterward, the controller announces to all aircraft that the Lake Hood airstrip is closed.

‘A belly slide’

Lt. Douglas Holler with Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport Police and Fire said that he was on scene when the pilot landed at Lake Hood.

Holler watched as the pilot landed the wounded plane. "He did a belly slide, basically, and came to a stop without flipping or anything," Holler said. The pilot was able to get himself out of the aircraft, Holler said.

Erich Scheunemann, assistant chief of the Anchorage Fire Department, said medics responded and there were no injuries.

According to the FAA plane number, the plane that landed safely is registered to an Anchorage man who could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Laurel Andrews

Laurel Andrews was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in October 2018.