Skip to main Content
Aviation

Family described ‘choppy’ water before floatplane crash near Homer that killed father

Surviving relatives of a Maryland man killed when a Rust’s Flying Service floatplane crashed during takeoff from a lodge near Homer reported “choppy” conditions and whitecaps in the distance, a federal report says.

But the Rust’s pilot described struggling to hold his course as he tried to take off before the July 19 crash, according to a new preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

A witness nearby saw the plane become airborne, then drop to the water before cartwheeling to a stop, the report says.

The plane left the Tutka Bay Lodge around 10 a.m. for Anchorage with six passengers: a family from Maryland, plus an adult relative. The crash killed Joseph Patanella, the 57-year-old father of three children in the plane. His wife and two children were injured, one seriously. The relative and pilot suffered minor injuries.

The de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver ended up upside down with its right wing torn off and floats partly detached.

The pilot, identified as Engjell Berisha, told investigators there were some swells in the bay when he started to take off. But his passengers described more serious conditions and also criticized the safety briefing they got.

The day after the crash, passengers in the plane “consistently” told the NTSB that Berisha asked them to take off their headsets for a safety briefing because the plane’s intercom wasn’t working, lead investigator Brice Banning wrote in the report. “They stated that the briefing was rushed and difficult to hear due to engine noise.”

The survivors reported choppy water conditions, the report says. One described whitecaps on ocean waves visible in the distance.

“The passengers said that, during the takeoff water run, the airplane impacted a swell or wave and nosed over abruptly, and the cabin rapidly filled with water,” Banning wrote. “One passenger stated that he was confident that the airplane briefly became airborne prior to impact.”

The witness saw the plane appear to accelerate slowly and “struggle into the air,” the report says. Then he said he saw it climb 50 to 100 feet, briefly level off, and then descend to the water.

“He said the airplane impacted the water on the nose of the left float and immediately cart-wheeled coming to rest inverted in the ocean waters,” Banning wrote. “He alerted emergency services and drove his boat to the submerged wreckage to assist with the rescue.”

A representative for Rust’s said the company is referring all inquiries to the NTSB.

Pilot Berisha told an Alaska state trooper at the hospital after the crash that he was “taking off parallel to the swells when the airplane impacted a swell and became airborne, the left float broke and the airplane cartwheeled,” the report says.

He separately told Banning during an interview that he started his takeoff run, then saw the left float begin to move into his peripheral vision from the left cockpit window, the investigator wrote. The plane felt as if it had “lost its rigidity” on the floats and began to yaw to the left.

Berisha told the investigator he tried to correct for the plane’s sudden left-turning tendency but the left wing hit the water, Banning wrote. The plane lurched forward and nosed over. The right wing broke free of the fuselage.

The plane immediately began filling with icy ocean water as Berisha struggled to get out of the submerged wreckage, he told the investigator.

The trooper at the scene described seas at less than 1 foot with a long wavelength, and winds less than 10 knots.

Patanella was taken to a nearby hospital with the survivors. Reports at the time described CPR in progress. He died before arriving at the hospital.

Patanella was the CEO of a Maryland cybersecurity firm and a former National Security Agency technologist.

Rust’s temporarily suspended operations for several days after the crash.

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.