Two Alaskans, a pilot and a hunter, are presumed dead after their plane crashed in a narrow ravine in the southwest preserve area of Denali National Park and Preserve this week, National Park Service officials said Saturday.
The Park Service said in a statement that the plane’s pilot, Jason Tucker, 45, from Wasilla, and passenger Nicolas Blace, 44, of Chugiak, are both presumed to have died in Wednesday’s crash, though their bodies have not yet been recovered.
Tucker was flying Blace from one remote airstrip to another near the preserve’s boundary when the Piper PA-18 Super Cub crashed, based on information from Blace’s hunting partner, according to the Park Service.
Due to the challenging terrain, recovery of the bodies and the aircraft, “if determined possible, will involve a complex and potentially high-risk ground operation,” and could be attempted in the coming days if weather conditions allow, the Park Service said.
“This is in a very, very steep, deep ravine,” said Clint Johnson, chief of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Alaska Regional Office. “In some places, it’s a vertical drop down.”
The men’s next of kin have been notified.
Wreckage from the plane was found Thursday morning in a ravine north of the Yentna River’s West Fork, the Park Service said, after the flight was reported overdue Wednesday.
The Alaska Air National Guard’s Rescue Coordination Center initiated a search for the overdue aircraft late Wednesday using coordinates from a locator beacon associated with the overdue pilot, the Park Service has said. The center launched an aircraft but the flight turned around due to bad weather.
A second flight that launched Thursday morning found the downed plane but couldn’t land at the site due to the steep terrain, according to the Park Service.
Later Thursday, two mountaineering rangers with Denali National Park flew to the site to evaluate whether it was possible to reach the wreckage using a helicopter short-haul line. The Park Service said they determined it wasn’t feasible for several reasons, including inadequate clearance for helicopter rotors due to how narrow the ravine is; the 460-foot length of the short-haul line; the lack of shoreline along the flowing creek at the bottom of the ravine; and hazards posed by loose rock along the ravine’s walls.
While the rangers were at the site of the crash Thursday, Alaska State Troopers received an alert that a hunter was stranded at a remote airstrip outside the preserve’s southern border when the pilot who was supposed to pick him up never arrived, according to the Park Service.
The stranded hunter told troopers that Blace, his hunting partner, and Tucker departed the airstrip Wednesday and that Tucker intended to drop off Blace at an airstrip along the Dillinger River — near the preserve’s western boundary — before returning for the other hunter, the Park Service said.
Officials believe that Tucker and Blace never reached the Dillinger River airstrip and presume that both died in the crash, in part based on evidence such as “the lack of fresh landing tracks at the Dillinger airstrip, no presence of hunters at the strip, and no communications from Blace, who was known to possess an InReach communication device,” the Park Service said.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigator and Denali mountaineering rangers flew to the site Friday afternoon to further investigate the crash and evaluate the terrain and prospects for recovery.
Johnson, with the NTSB, said that the investigator used a drone to take photos of the site, which enabled them to gather more information about the crash. The plane was fragmented, Johnson said, reiterating what officials had said previously — that the accident didn’t appear survivable.
“The topography is very challenging, and we’re going to leave the recovery of body and wreckage up to the Park Service,” he said.
The park’s southwest preserve is a highly remote area that includes the Yentna River Valley. Sport hunting is legal in the preserve.
“Our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of those involved as we work through this response,” Brooke Merrell, the superintendent of Denali National Park and Preserve, said in a written statement.
Due to the remoteness of the crash area, no weather readings are available from the time of the accident, according to Johnson. He said that anyone who was in the area early Wednesday afternoon can submit a weather report to the NTSB by emailing email@example.com.
“That would be really helpful to the investigation,” he said.
This week’s plane crash is at least the fourth fatal aviation accident to occur in Alaska since June. On July 20, a state-chartered helicopter crashed into a lake on the North Slope, killing the pilot and all three state workers on board. Earlier that month, on July 2, two passengers died in a plane crash after the pilot of their air taxi made a forced landing in mountainous terrain north of Old Harbor on Kodiak Island.