A famed Alaska bush pilot’s plane struck a tree while departing a remote ridgeline airstrip last month near Shaktoolik and then crashed onto the tundra, killing both people onboard, a National Transportation Safety Board report released Tuesday said.
A helicopter pilot who responded to the scene reported “unusual” winds in the area soon after the crash, the preliminary report said.
Jim Tweto, who gained celebrity through his family’s reality TV show, the Discovery Channel series “Flying Wild Alaska,” was known for being a skilled pilot dedicated to rural Alaska. He had landed and departed from the airstrip where the June 16 crash took place many times in the past, said Clint Johnson, the chief of Alaska’s NTSB office.
Tweto, who was 68, and 45-year-old Idaho outdoor guide Shane Reynolds died in the crash.
The 750-foot airstrip is on a rock- and grass-covered ridgeline, the preliminary report said. Tweto was operating a charter flight for Golden Eagle Outfitters and planned to make three trips to pick up a group of bear hunters and their gear, the report said. He dropped off two clients during the first trip and returned about an hour later to pick up one guide and some of the gear during the second trip. The hunters’ camp was situated atop the hill at the end of the airstrip, Johnson said.
The Cessna 180′s downhill and downwind departure from the airstrip appeared normal, the guide who remained at the camp later told NTSB investigators. He had flown with Tweto from that airstrip many times and said it was normal for the plane to dip below the airstrip and out of sight before it began climbing.
The guide had turned away during the takeoff and did not see the entire departure, the report said. When he did not hear or see the plane climbing, he ran to the ridgeline and saw the plane had crashed into tundra roughly 300 feet below, the report said. He called for help and hiked down to the wreckage.
After leaving the airstrip, the plane struck a tree that rendered the aircraft’s horizontal stabilizer unusable, Johnson said. Investigators later found a 4-inch thick tree on the left side of the runway that was broken about 4 feet above its base, the report said. The tree had “fragments of red paint that matched the accident airplane’s paint color” and tree fibers and sap were found on the plane’s tail, according to the report.
The surviving guide told investigators winds “‘were gusting and changing a lot’ and increased during the hour they waited for (Tweto’s) return,” the report said.
The report also said, “a helicopter pilot who responded to the accident site about 45 minutes after the accident said that the winds were ‘unusual’ that day.”
The report said winds were variable, with gusts of up to 14 mph from the north, which calmed and then were followed by gusts of up to about 6 mph from the south.
“There is a fair amount of mechanical turbulence in these hills there,” Johnson said. “So it’s varying degrees, ever-changing wind directions, velocities — so that’s something that Jim was contending with every time he went in there.”
The NTSB investigation into the cause of the crash is still in its early stages, Johnson said. The wreckage was recovered from the crash site and brought to Nome, and is expected to arrive in Anchorage in the coming days so investigators can further assess it, Johnson said.
The final investigation into the crash could take about a year to complete, he said.
“We are looking at all aspects of that, the terrain, the wind, the load that was on the airplane — all that’s being considered at this point,” Johnson said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the vertical stabilizer was rendered unusable after the plane struck a tree. It was a horizontal stabilizer that was damaged.