A state-chartered helicopter that crashed on the North Slope last month, killing four people, wasn’t reported overdue for more than nine hours despite tracking technology indicating the flight had stopped after flying low over a remote lake, according to a new federal report.
Investigators are still determining what caused the helicopter to crash near Wainwright about 50 miles south of Utqiagvik on the morning of July 20. The 1996 Bell 206 helicopter was transporting Alaska Department of Natural Resources employees conducting field work in the area.
Those killed in the crash were identified as North Pole pilot Bernard “Tony” Higdon, 48; Fairbanks resident Ronald Daanen, 51; Fairbanks resident Justin Germann, 27; and South Bend, Indiana, resident Tori Moore, 26.
The helicopter was owned and operated by Homer-based Maritime Helicopters. It was working under a contract from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and had departed from Utqiagvik on July 20 around 10 a.m. and was set to stop at the Atqasuk Airport and continue to a remote area east of Wainwright before returning to Utqiagvik by 8:30 p.m., according to a preliminary report issued Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The helicopter made a quick stop at the Atqasuk Airport before it crashed into Lake Itinik just after 11 a.m., the report said.
A search began after the helicopter did not return to Utqiagvik by 8:30 p.m., the report said. The wreckage was found in the shallow waters of the lake around 3:15 a.m. on July 21, the report said. The bodies were recovered on July 23.
The helicopter was equipped with a tracking system that allowed for real-time flight following, according to the preliminary report. The tracking data ended as the flight passed low over the lake’s southeastern shoreline, the report said.
NTSB investigators are trying to determine who was responsible for tracking the flight as well as why the helicopter was flying low, according to Clint Johnson, the agency’s Alaska chief. Federal Aviation Administration regulations require operators to track a flight, unless there are other agreements in place, Johnson said.
There was also some initial confusion about when the helicopter left Utqiagvik on July 20, Johnson said. Initially the operator and the Department of Natural Resources said the helicopter left around 6 p.m. instead of 10 a.m., when it actually departed, Johnson said.
It did not appear anyone could have survived the crash, regardless of the time rescuers arrived, Johnson said.
The report lists clear skies with 8 miles of visibility, but Johnson said the nearest weather readings were taken roughly 30 miles from the crash site and conditions can change rapidly and vary widely in the area.
The wreckage was removed from the lake on July 30 and eventually brought to Anchorage for examination, Johnson said.
A spokesman for Maritime Helicopters did not respond to messages on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources declined to comment on the report and crash when reached by phone.
The NTSB is asking anyone who may have been flying in the vicinity around the time of the crash to contact them by email at witness@NTSB.gov.