The 27-year-old Hawaii woman who died Monday in a plane crash in Eagle River Valley had recently obtained her private pilot’s license while undergoing intensive chemotherapy for cancer, her family said.
Her mother, Liane Vierra, said by phone this week that knowing McKenna Vierra was flying and doing what she loved when she died is bringing the family peace.
Dakota Bauder, a 23-year-old flight instructor for Angel Aviation Alaska Flight School in Anchorage, also died in the crash. He had taken McKenna on a discovery flight over the Chugach Mountains in a Cessna 172P, an official for the National Transportation Safety Board said.
The cause of the crash in mountainous terrain in Chugach State Park east of Anchorage has not been determined, the official said.
McKenna graduated from college with plans to become a broadcast journalist, but jobs were scarce, and at her family’s suggestion she eventually applied to become a flight attendant, her mother said. Jobs in the airline industry were competitive, but Liane Vierra said everything seemed to fall into place for McKenna after her first interview with Hawaiian Airlines.
McKenna fell in love with the job because it gave her a chance to travel and stoked her sense of adventure, her mother said.
One day a pilot invited McKenna to come into the cockpit to watch a landing. She was in awe and immediately knew she wanted to become a pilot, Liane Vierra said.
“She came home and said, ‘Mom, I can do that!’ and she went and did it,” her mother said.
Last summer, McKenna began taking flight classes. But near the end of summer, she began to have difficulty breathing, Liane said.
Doctors found a softball-sized tumor near her heart and diagnosed lymphoma.
McKenna began an intensive regime of chemotherapy. Every fifth week, she checked into a hospital for a five-day stay. Because the treatments came during the pandemic, McKenna was not allowed to have visitors.
Liane said it was painful not being able to hold her daughter’s hand and sit by her bed. McKenna spoke to her church and shared openly on social media about her diagnosis and treatment. Liane said she’s heard from countless people that McKenna served as their inspiration.
“She just really spoke words of life to people, even when she was struggling,” Liane said.
Even when she lost her long dark hair, McKenna viewed her diagnosis as a challenge to overcome and an experience to learn from, her mother said.
Liane said the diagnosis fueled McKenna’s determination to become a pilot. She continued classes and kept studying for flight exams, eventually earning her private pilot license in November.
In December, McKenna finished 720 hours of chemotherapy and the tumor near her heart was undetectable, Liane said.
McKenna had arrived in Alaska on Saturday to celebrate her boyfriend’s birthday, Liane said. They met while McKenna was taking flight courses, and he’d recently taken a temporary job as a helicopter pilot for tours in Alaska, Liane said.
When McKenna first visited Alaska last month, she went on a dogsledding tour and checked out glaciers by helicopter, her mother said. McKenna wanted to fly in Alaska to gain credit hours toward her commercial license, Liane said. When she’d returned for her second visit, she was eager to go up in a Cessna, especially because it was a plane she was unfamiliar with, Liane said.
Liane said she worried at first, “as any mother would,” when McKenna decided to become a pilot, but as she watched her daughter’s passion grow and went on a flight with her in the fall, that fear eased.
“For this reason it scared me,” Liane said of the crash. “It put a fear in my heart that I might lose her. ... When I went up in the plane, the turbulence you feel is scary, but I was again inspired by her because she had no fear of the turbulence and she handled it like a champ.”
Liane said Wednesday she doesn’t know what went wrong during the flight but she and her family are relying on their faith to help them through their grief.
“Her slogan to me was YOLO -- ‘You only live once, mom! ...’” Liane said. “She encouraged me to do things outside of my box. She was just that type of adventurous person.”