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Weather report before fatal air ambulance crash led another company to decline flight to Seward

A little more than two hours before Friday’s fatal crash of an air ambulance headed from Anchorage to Seward, another company declined to pick up a patient on the same route because the weather was bad.

Three people died Friday evening when a plane carrying a two-person medical crew crashed above the Sterling Highway on the Kenai Peninsula. The crash under unknown circumstances occurred about 15 miles west of Quartz Creek Airport.

Glen Morthorpe, shown in 2006, piloted the Security Aviation plane that crashed on Friday. (Rob Stapleton / Alaska Journal of Commerce)

The twin-engine Piper PA-31 was headed to Seward Airport, where two Medevac Alaska employees planned to pick up a patient from Providence Seward Medical Center before returning to Anchorage, according to a statement from Security Aviation, which operated the plane.

Security Aviation in a statement Monday identified the pilot as Glen Morthorpe, "one of our most experienced pilots. Glen was a true pioneer in Alaska’s aviation community, and we extend our heartfelt sympathies to his family and friends.”

Morthorpe, 75, was the company’s director of operations and worked there since 2012, a Security representative said. He’d accrued more than 35,000 total flight hours.

Medevac Alaska identified the two employees aboard the plane as registered nurse Rob Cartner and paramedic Maddox Burts.

With the permission of the families and with a heavy heart we can announce that RN Robert Cartner, and MICP Maddox Burts...

Posted by Medevac Alaska on Sunday, December 1, 2019

It is early in the federal investigation of the cause of the crash, but bad weather is part of the conversation.

The weather was concerning enough Friday afternoon that LifeMed Alaska, a large statewide air ambulance service, declined to make a trip to Seward. Another company put a Seward trip on hold until the next day.

LifeMed got a call for a flight request to Seward at about 4:30 p.m. Friday, according to Steve Heyano, the company’s chief operating officer.

“We declined it for weather,” Heyano said. He didn’t have more specifics as to what conditions prompted the decision or the nature of the call.

Guardian Flight, another major air ambulance provider in Alaska, received a request for a patient transport from Seward to another Alaska location Friday evening, according to a statement forwarded by a Guardian representative. “The flight request was put on temporary hold and the company completed the patient flight the following day.”

It’s not clear whether the Seward patient transport calls that LifeMed and Guardian fielded were for the patient that Medevac Alaska agreed to fly. Neither LifeMed nor Guardian provided information about the patient involved in the calls. Guardian declined to say what prompted the hold on the flight.

A spokesman for Providence Alaska said he couldn’t provide any information about the patient’s medical situation due to confidentiality laws.

It’s not unusual for the hospital to call numerous air ambulance providers, Providence spokesman Michael Canfield said. “We typically reach out to all the ambulance services to request assistance.”

Maddox Burts, 35, with his 11-year-old daughter Madi on Thanksgiving Day 2019. (Photo courtesy of Burts family)

The Security Aviation plane left Anchorage with the Medevac Alaska team around 6:30 p.m. Friday and crashed around 7:10, authorities said.

Weather and logistics prevented a federal aviation investigator from reaching the crash site immediately. Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group recovered the bodies of the victims midafternoon Sunday.

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Noreen Price described the wreckage as “highly fragmented” and involved in a post-crash fire, according to Clint Johnson, the agency’s Alaska chief.

A number of people driving the Sterling near Mile 61 saw the crash 1,400 or 1,500 feet above the highway, Johnson said. Four or five witnesses had contacted investigators, he said, with more still coming in.

The plane was registered to a company called Fly 4 You Inc., which does business as Security Aviation, a company representative said. Security flew with Medevac Alaska teams on a regular basis.

Medevac Alaska LLC is a small air and ground EMS service located primarily in Anchorage.

The company was formed in 2016 and has a little over a dozen employees including RNs, paramedics and EMTs, according to operations manager Cory Hughes. The company operates ground ambulances and medical crews and has agreements or contracts with air carriers -- including Security Aviation -- to provide aircraft for medical evacuations, Hughes said.

“As you can imagine right now, we are primarily focused on taking care of the families of Robert and Maddox and the rest of our Medevac Alaska family,” he said in an email.

The crash marks the second fatal accident involving an air ambulance in Alaska this year. Three Juneau-based crew members with Guardian died after their Beechcraft King Air 200 turboprop went down near Kake in February. The flight left Anchorage for the roughly 600-mile trip to a patient pickup in the Tlingit village but never arrived.

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