Aviation

Pilot in fatal crash near Cordova radioed for weather update just before controllers lost contact, NTSB says

The pilot of a plane that crashed near Cordova last month radioed air traffic controllers for weather information just before they lost contact with him, according to a new federal report.

Killed in the crash was Bryan Schwartz, the 62-year-old pilot and owner of Bethel-based charter Nunak Air Taxi, which did business as Friendship Air. The company closed after the crash.

Schwartz was flying the company’s Piper PA-32 Cherokee Six from Yakutat along the coast to Birchwood Airport near Anchorage on Oct. 16 when he crashed about five miles south of Cordova just before 2:30 p.m., according to the preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The agency is looking into the cause of the crash.

Air traffic controllers told investigators that just before the accident the pilot requested “updated weather information for the Anchorage area when the conversation abruptly stopped,” followed by an emergency transmitter signal, lead investigator Mark Ward wrote. “No further communications were received from the accident airplane.”

A search and rescue operation began when the Federal Aviation Administration issued an alert at 2:50 p.m., the report said, but bad weather hampered the effort. The crew of a U.S. Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter spotted wreckage along a steep mountainside at about 1,800 feet altitude but they couldn’t land.

The next day, an Alaska Air National Guard helicopter crew hiked to the site and confirmed the pilot’s death. Schwartz’s body was recovered the day after that by the Guard.

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Schwartz, 62, was from Missouri and had four children with his wife, Katie, according to his obituary. Over the years, passengers posted gratitude on the company’s Facebook page for not only flying them to home villages but for small favors like dropping off an item left behind.

Schwartz was a pilot for 37 years, according to a GoFundme page started by one of his daughters.

“Alaska was his home away from home, where he had many family and friends. Over the years many have come to know and love him for his quick humor and calm presence,” she wrote. “He loved his family well and worked hard to provide for them all the way to the end.”

The “highly fragmented” wreckage of the plane remains on the side of the mountain, according to Clint Johnson, Alaska chief of the NTSB.

Weather conditions the day of the crash about 11 miles away included a broken ceiling at about 1,000 feet, winds from 14 to 24 knots and 10 miles of visibility, according to the report. Conditions at the crash site just after initial reports came in were unfavorable enough to prevent crews from landing, authorities said.

Crews, who will need to use ropes for safety, will attempt to recover the wreckage when the weather allows, Johnson said.

“There are some challenges for the recovery crews getting in there, which is one of the reasons we’re holding off right now,” he said.

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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