NTSB: Plane that crashed in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, killing 2, may have broken up in midair

The plane that crashed Thursday morning in Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve, killing 2, may have broken up in midair, federal investigators say.

The Cessna 185 was operated by Copper Valley Air Service and carried a pilot and one passenger, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. A Rescue Coordination Center crew flew to the site in a helicopter Thursday and confirmed that neither survived.

On Saturday, state troopers and National Park rangers were able to recover the bodies of both the pilot and passenger from the plane which are being taken to the state’s medical examiner for identification, Alaska State Troopers said in an update on Saturday.

The plane, which also carried U.S. mail, was flying from Gulkana to McCarthy, officials say.

The debris came to rest in forested, mountainous terrain that’s difficult to access. Alaska State Troopers and park rangers planned to fly to the site Friday to recover the bodies.

The crash occurred about 13 miles northeast of Chitina. The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center was notified of the crash at about 11:41 a.m. Thursday by an emergency locator transmitter, troopers said.

The rescue crew described the wreckage as being in two distinct places, according to Clint Johnson, Alaska chief for the National Transportation Safety Board.

The main fuselage landed in one location and the tail and other debris were found about 200 yards behind it, Johnson said. That would “indicate the airplane broke up in flight,” he said, cautioning the finding was very initial.

Midair breakups are fairly unusual, and often involve flying in bad weather. Investigators are looking into the weather at the time, which was cold but didn’t immediately appear to be a factor, Johnson said.

It was minus 20 in Gulkana on Friday morning.

The transportation safety board is bringing up a structural engineer as part of the investigation. An Alaska-based investigator and the engineer are expected to travel to the site where the wreckage will be recovered for examination, Johnson said. It’s not clear when that will happen.

Copper Valley Air Service is a family-owned business based at Gulkana Airport in Glennallen, according to the company website. The service provides on-demand flightseeing and backcountry drop-offs and pickups as well as scheduled direct flights on the mail plane Mondays and Thursdays to May Creek and McCarthy.

Wrangell-St. Elias is America’s largest national park at more than 13 million acres, a massive and almost entirely wild tract of thick forest, glaciers and peaks rising to 18,000 feet near the Canadian border.

Check back for updates on this developing story.