A National Transportation Safety Board team headed to Ketchikan Friday to start investigating what caused a flightseeing plane carrying a pilot and five passengers to crash Thursday near Misty Fjords National Monument.
The four-person team will start their work analyzing the crash Saturday, according to the agency’s Alaska chief, Clint Johnson, who dropped senior accident investigator Heidi Kemner at the airport in Anchorage Friday morning. Other team members are flying in from Texas and the East Coast.
The Southeast Aviation de Havilland DC-2 Beaver departed from Misty Fjords and was headed to Ketchikan when it crashed in steep, forested hard-to-reach terrain about 12 miles northeast of the city, authorities say.
Authorities have not identified the pilot or five passengers, all of them from a Holland America cruise ship docked in Ketchikan, the Nieuw Amsterdam. The ship was wrapping up a weeklong cruise before heading back to Seattle.
The crash victims and wreckage remained on the mountainside Friday. Poor weather and visibility prevented any recovery efforts by Alaska State Troopers and volunteers from the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad as of 4 p.m., a troopers spokesperson said.
A passenger aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam posted a message on social media Thursday calling the crash “a very sobering reminder of how fragile life can be and how one simple decision can be so consequential! It’s so incredibly beautiful here and it was just a ‘normal’ day on a special experience for all of us that unfolded very differently for those that were on that plane and their loved ones.”
Another passenger, in a video shared by Seattle news outlet KIRO 7, showed clouds obscuring the mountains in a view from the ship Thursday.
A passenger on the Nieuw Amsterdam showed me the weather conditions from Ketchikan, AK. "You can’t even see the top of the mountains. That’s how it’s been pretty much all day," he said. U.S. Coast Guard reported "8 mph winds, visibility of two miles” & light rain. @KIRO7Seattle pic.twitter.com/BDAuWEmQYw— Kevin Ko (@NewsWithKevin) August 6, 2021
Bad weather and low cloud ceilings obscured the wreckage from searchers for several hours after the plane’s emergency beacon began emitting a signal just after 11:20 a.m. Thursday. Weather in the area early Thursday afternoon was reported as clouds at 900 feet, light rain and low visibility.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter spotted the plane around 2:30 p.m. Two rescuers lowered to the site found no survivors.
Weather will be one of the factors investigators examine, along with any mechanical failures or other problems with the pilot or plane, before determining what may have caused the crash. That finding won’t come until next year.
NTSB has conducted numerous fatal crash investigations in Southeast involving tour pilots flying into mountains in bad weather that obscures their vision without broadly available equipment to fly safely.
But it’s not yet clear what caused this particular plane to go down, Johnson said.
“It’s just way too early to start drawing conclusions about any similarities yet,” he said.
[In Alaska, Commercial Aviation Is a Lifeline. The State Is Also Home to a Growing Share of the Country’s Deadly Crashes.]
Eight people from a Ketchikan-docked cruise ship died in a 2015 crash. Everyone on board the Promech Air flight was killed: pilot Bryan Krill, 64, and eight passengers from the Holland America Line’s MS Westerdam on a shore excursion.
A preliminary NTSB report released shortly after the crash indicated the plane was returning from a flightseeing trip and flying in “marginal” weather conditions under visual flight rules when it crashed into a rock face near Ella Lake, about 20 miles northeast of Ketchikan.
Taquan Air bought Promech’s Alaska operations the next year.
In 2018, a Taquan flight carrying lodge guests near Hydaburg -- about 75 miles west of Ketchikan -- crashed into the side of Mount Jumbo, leaving 10 of 11 people aboard with injuries ranging from minor to severe. A NTSB report noted the Federal Aviation Administration allowed Taquan to keep an operations director who was at times too busy to oversee flight safety because another aviation job took him out of Ketchikan.
A Taquan flight was involved in another multi-fatality accident involving cruise passengers on an air tour of the Misty Fjords area in 2019.
Six people died and 10 were hurt when Taquan and another flightseeing plane collided in clear skies over George Inlet near a scenic waterfall. Both planes carried passengers from the same cruise megaship, the Royal Princess, on a 25-minute flightseeing tour.
A probable cause finding earlier this year said the two pilots didn’t see each other because their views were partly obstructed. The board also found they didn’t get alerts about nearby aircraft in the crucial minutes before the crash because equipment that could have provided alerts wasn’t working properly.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.