Aviation

Final photos depict deteriorating weather in 2021 Ketchikan flightseeing crash that killed 6

Pre-crash Ketchikan passenger photo

The photograph taken in August 2021 by one of five flightseeing passengers on a Southeast Aviation floatplane shows a rainy morning in Ketchikan’s harbor — typical for the tourist hub but not ideal for a trip.

Partly visible under the plane’s wing is the Nieuw Amsterdam, the cruise ship the passengers left for the 90-minute flight into the majestic scenery of Misty Fjords National Monument and back to the harbor.

They never returned.

The Southeast Aviation de Havilland DC-2 Beaver left Misty Fjords the morning of Aug. 5, 2021, and crashed in steep, forested terrain about 18 miles northeast of Ketchikan, killing all five passengers and the pilot.

The photograph is part of a new National Transportation Safety Board report released Thursday that describes rapidly deteriorating weather at the time of last year’s deadly crash. The photo came from one of three iPhones investigators recovered from the wreckage.

A probable cause report is due out in about three weeks, officials say.

Several photos taken in the moments before the crash show low clouds obscuring the side of a valley north of Mirror Lake where the wreckage was found. A final photo shows only low clouds and mountain.

Ketchikan crash passenger photo

Pilots who helped search for the wreckage reported obscured mountain tops and valley clouds as low as 600 to 800 feet, according to the report. The plane crashed at about 1,750 feet.

The crash marked another in a string of Southeast Alaska air disasters involving tour pilots flying into mountains in bad weather without broadly available equipment to improve safety in low visibility.

Ketchikan, ringed by mountains and prone to changeable weather, has been the scene of 18 accidents between 2004 and 2021 that killed 27 people and injured 29, 14 of them seriously, according to NTSB data. One 2015 crash in Misty Fjords killed eight cruise-ship passengers and the pilot of a Promech Air flight tour.

A group of Ketchikan flightseeing companies developed voluntary safety protocols for the busy skies around Misty Fjords in a letter of agreement revised last year. Southeast Aviation LLC was a signatory.

“The accident flight did not follow the standard Misty Fjords route outlined in the (letter), nor did it comply with the recommended altitudes for flights into and out of the Misty Fjords,” the report states.

The new report also references another accident a month earlier involving the crash pilot, 64-year-old Washington resident Rolf Lanzendorfer.

Lanzendorfer didn’t check his takeoff route “because he was in a hurry to get back due to there being more flights on the schedule” and struck a 1,500-pound marine buoy, according to a report filed as part of the investigation docket. The plane flipped over and sank. Lanzendorfer was not hurt.

A Federal Aviation Administration investigation determined the pilot “acted carelessly.”

NTSB investigators in the new report say they found no record that Southeast Aviation provided additional training for Lanzendorfer after the July accident.

A Southeast Aviation representative could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.

Lead crash investigator Heidi Kemner has received no response to several inquiries made to company officials, according to Clint Johnson, the NTSB’s Alaska chief.

Ketchikan crash plane

The families of four of the five passengers on the crash flight — Andrea McArthur, 55, and her 20-year-old daughter, Rachel McArthur, both of Woodstock, Georgia; Jacquelyn Komplin, 60, of Napa, California; and Janet Kroll, 77, of Mount Prospect, Illinois — are suing Holland America Line.

A 69-year-old California man, Mark Henderson, also died in the crash.

The lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleges the Seattle-based cruise company pressures outside excursion operators to take unnecessary risks to meet cruise schedules and doesn’t warn passengers of dangers.

None of the passengers had booked their travel as an excursion with the cruise ship or Holland America, according to the NTSB report. Cruise companies, however, often promote the trips to passengers as a quick way to get deep into nearby wilderness.

[Coast Guard, troopers investigating boat’s close pass to floatplane in Halibut Cove]

At 2.3 million acres, Misty Fjords is the largest wilderness area in Alaska’s national forests and the second largest in the nation. Behm Canal, more than 100 miles long, cuts through the monument.

The Nieuw Amsterdam cruise ship arrived at Ketchikan harbor around 7 a.m. the day of the crash and was scheduled to depart at 4 p.m., according to the report. Because of the crash, it didn’t leave until about 6:30 p.m.

Southeast Aviation’s owner told investigators that Lanzendorfer described weather for Misty Fjords as good but he wanted to cancel a noon flight to Hyder due to low ceilings.

The plane took off at about 9:40 a.m., landed at Big Goat Lake in Misty Fjords around 10:20 a.m. and left seven minutes later, the report states. The Beaver began crossing Behm Canal at just under 3,000 feet.

“Throughout the flight, the airplane continued to descend while maneuvering through the terrain and flying through areas of reduced visibility as depicted by passenger photographs,” Kemner wrote.

The U.S. Coast Guard picked up the plane’s emergency signal at about 10:50 a.m. and found it about 30 minutes later. The Beaver had struck a tree. There were no survivors.

Plane Crash

Lanzendorfer flew one trip before the crash flight.

“Rolf was ‘ducking’ around just a little, apparently to avoid the clouds” at the end of the flight, one passenger wrote in an email to investigators. “By the time we landed and were on ground transportation to return to our hotel, the weather was no longer inviting for a sight-seeing flight.”

Another passenger said “the skies became full of clouds and fog” as they approached Ketchikan.

“Rolf handled the approach and landing with relative ease of someone who had done this many times before,” that person wrote in a message. “After landing, we actually met the next 5 people going out - all from the Holland American cruise ship. I will forever remember Rolf and those 5 people.”

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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