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Aviation

2 hours lapsed between last signal and overdue report on fatal Alaska helicopter flight

The scene of the helicopter crash in the Chugach Mountains, near the Knik Glacier, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (Alaska Mountain Rescue Group photo via Alaska State Troopers)

The helicopter that crashed Saturday evening in the Chugach Mountains, killing five and leaving one survivor, wasn’t reported overdue until two hours after a tracking signal abruptly stopped.

Now investigators are looking into why that was and whether anyone else aboard may have survived, at least initially. They will also examine weather conditions, pilot experience and history, and the airworthiness of the helicopter.

The crash of the Airbus AS350B3 about 21 miles southeast of Palmer killed the Soloy Helicopters pilot, two highly respected guides and two European clients of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, including a billionaire considered one of the wealthiest men in Europe.

The helicopter crashed at about 5,500 feet and then rolled 800 or 900 feet downhill, federal investigators say.

Killed were 33-year-old pilot Zachary Russell, of Anchorage; guides Greg Harms, 52, of Colorado, and Sean McManamy, 38, of Girdwood; and Benjamin Larochaix, 50, and Petr Kellner, 56, both of the Czech Republic, according to Alaska State Troopers. French media have identified Larochaix as being from France.

The survivor, 48-year-old Czech snowboarder David Horváth, remained in serious condition at Providence Alaska Medical Center on Wednesday, a hospital spokesman said. Investigators have not yet been able to interview Horváth.

The group was on a half-day heli-skiing expedition in the steep backcountry above Knik Glacier when the helicopter slammed into an unnamed 6,000-foot peak, 10 or 15 feet from the top of a ridge. Some reports described relatively clear weather in the area, investigators say.

Fatal crashes are rare in the heli-ski industry. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation into what happened is just beginning.

Preliminary information indicates the heli-ski operators didn’t realize there was a problem until two hours after the satellite tracking signal stopped, authorities say.

That does not necessarily indicate anyone did anything wrong, said Clint Johnson, Alaska chief for the National Transportation Safety Board. It’s too early to say because the agency’s operations investigators haven’t had a chance to closely examine the helicopter’s tracking system.

The wreckage remains in the mountains, where rugged terrain and bad weather are complicating efforts to recover it. The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday put a temporary flight restriction over the area until the recovery is done. Officials say they hope to bring out the wreckage by the end of the week.

Soloy, through its insurance company, is responsible for lifting the wreckage off the mountain, Johnson said.

During the trip Soloy was operating under Part 135 of federal aviation code, which requires either a flight plan to be filed or the use of electronics to keep track of an aircraft carrying passengers, Johnson said.

“Our investigators ... will be looking at that, we always look at that, that’s very standard,” he said, cautioning the public against jumping to conclusions about what the tracking information means. “Let us get the details. We’ve only provided just a small snippet.”

Soloy Helicopters, a longtime family-owned business based at Wasilla Airport, did not respond to questions this week.

A spokesman for Soloy in a statement Tuesday said the company would have no additional comment due to the active investigation.

“Soloy Helicopters extends its sincere condolences to the families of those lost in the March 27 accident in Alaska, including our treasured colleague who also died in the crash,” the statement said. “Safety is our top priority and it is in that spirit that we will be working alongside the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and other local officials as the investigation into this accident ensues.”

It’s not yet clear what protocols Soloy and the lodge use to track their helicopters.

Another Alaska company, Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, uses a dispatch center to ferry reports between the helicopter and guides regarding snow conditions, possible avalanche conditions and general safety information, according to owner Jeff Fraser. The company also does check-ins at regular intervals.

Pathfinder Aviation, the company Fraser contracts with for helicopters, also tracks their aircraft, he said. “It’s double-checked. You’re tracking your skiers. Then the helicopter professionals are tracking their ships as well.”

Two Alaska Army National Guard helicopters responded to the helicopter crash in the Chugach Mountains, near the Knik Glacier, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (Alaska Mountain Rescue Group photo via Alaska State Troopers)

The helicopter left from Wasilla Airport at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, according to Johnson. It picked up passengers — the three Czech clients and two guides — at a location on Wasilla Lake and left for the mountains at about 3:45 p.m.

It wasn’t immediately clear why the group wasn’t picked up at the lodge.

Tordrillo Mountain Lodge is about 60 miles northwest of Anchorage, across Cook Inlet. The lodge bills itself as a luxury multisport resort and offers guided heli-ski packages through the winter that start at $15,000 per person. The lodge contracts with Soloy for helicopter services.

Kellner and Larochaix were frequent guests at the lodge, a representative said after the crash.

A spokesperson for the lodge did not respond to additional questions this week.

“Please be mindful that information at this time is limited and more information will be provided once the authorities in Alaska return to the accident site and all the families are properly notified,” the lodge posted on its Facebook page Tuesday. “Our deepest condolences go out to the families and friends of those who died in this tragic event.”

The helicopter’s last signal from the on-board satellite tracking system came at 6:35 p.m. Saturday, according to Johnson, who interviewed managers at the helicopter company on Sunday morning.

But Soloy didn’t report the helicopter missing until two hours later, around 8:30 p.m., Johnson said. Soloy was able to give him the time of the last signal, but that can be retrieved by looking at archived data.

Information from his interview indicated no one was aware the track had stopped, he said. “All I know is when they noticed it was overdue.”

Johnson said he can’t speculate as to whether anyone was able to survive the crash besides Horváth.

“We’re going to be looking at that,” he said. “Until we actually talk to the survivor and talk to the medical examiner we just don’t know.”

A rescue team got to the crash site by 12:30 a.m. Sunday, about six hours after the helicopter’s signal dropped out, according to information from the Rescue Coordination Center.

They found Horváth alive inside the helicopter, according to Alaska Air National Guard Lt. Col. Keenan Zerkel, director of the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center. There were no other survivors at that time.

Four of the victims were found inside the helicopter, Zerkel said in an email. One victim was located outside the helicopter, he said.

The identity of the person located outside of the helicopter has not been released. Authorities would not say whether it appeared he was thrown or left the wreckage on his own.

At 8:15 Sunday morning, the volunteer members of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group got the call to help recover the victims of the crash, according to Jim Mullin, who served as incident commander for the nonprofit group’s mission.

They had to move quickly. The weather was supposed to start degrading by 4 p.m., Mullin said.

An avalanche specialist with the group rode with Johnson in a troopers helicopter. They overflew the crash site around 10:30 a.m. Sunday. Johnson documented the wreckage from the air before snow could cover it up.

In this photo provided by the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, some of the group's volunteers work near the scene of a helicopter crash close to the Knik Glacier in Alaska on Sunday, March 28, 2021. (Lance Flint/Alaska Mountain Rescue Group via AP)

The eight-member Mountain Rescue Group recovery team left Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson around 12:30 p.m. Sunday, with two Alaska Army National Guard helicopters, Mullin said. They landed on a flat bench near the wreckage that had come to rest on another small flat area surrounded by steep snowy terrain.

The team spent about 90 minutes at the site carefully moving the crash victims into one of the helicopters, he said. Then they got into the other helicopter for the trip back down out of the mountains.

“We do our best to be respectful knowing that these are people’s family members,” Mullin said. “We’ve got very caring people that we send out on these missions. And it’s tough on them.”

The men’s bodies were transported to the State Medical Examiner Office.

The crash sent shock waves around the world and throughout the outdoor community.

Kellner was a billionaire businessman and financier with a net worth over $17 billion, according to the Forbes 2020 list of the world’s richest people. He wielded significant influence on foreign policy in his home country.

Benjamin Larochaix, 50, was an experienced snowboarder from Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, France, the Le Dauphiné newspaper reported.

Harms, an internationally renowned big-mountain guide based in Colorado with deep connections to Alaska, was a new father of an infant daughter. A fundraising site set up by a friend for his partner and their child had raised more than $230,000 by Wednesday afternoon.

McManamy, a longtime guide based in Girdwood who also led trips up Denali, loved the mountains and was an avid surfer. Friends set up a fundraising site for his wife Caitlin in honor of a “friend and brother that could make you laugh harder than you ever have.”

A fundraising site set up for Russell described heli-skiing with Soloy as “his ultiimate goal ... Zach had the warmest smile, an infectious laugh and was loved by all who met him. He will be remembered as a loyal, loving, kind and generous son, brother, fiancé and friend.”

Professional snowboarder Travis Rice called Harms and McManamy “two of the best guides I know” in a Facebook post Tuesday. “These two embodied the joy of living life to the fullest in the mountains and both still carried a childlike wonderment in appreciation for what they did and embraced the work they put in, to do it safely and responsibly.”

He called Kellner a passionate snowboarder who loved talking about his family.

“Please send some love to their families and friends who must be shattered right now,” Rice wrote. “And PLEASE send some healing energy to my friend David Horvath who is recovering from this horrific Crash.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the person found outside the helicopter was the pilot. Officials have not disclosed which one of the five men who died in the crash was outside.

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