PALMER — A new National Transportation Safety Board report on a 2021 heli-ski crash that killed five men, including Czech billionaire Petr Kellner and an internationally renowned ski guide, lists as the probable cause the pilot’s final decisions and lack of training.
The report, which also faults the Federal Aviation Administration, reveals that the lodge that chartered the trip was aware of the crash within about 40 minutes. But amid errors and confusion, a rescue mission wasn’t initiated for more than two hours.
The crash of the Airbus AS350B3 in the Chugach Mountains 21 miles southeast of Palmer was among the deadliest heli-skiing aviation accidents in North American history and drew international attention. The Airbus was operated by Soloy Helicopters of Wasilla.
The crash killed 56-year-old Petr Kellner, one of the richest men in Europe, and 50-year-old French snowboarder Benjamin Larochaix; guides Gregory Harms, 52, of Colorado, and Sean McManamy, 38, of Girdwood; and 33-year-old Soloy pilot Zachary Russell of Anchorage.
One man survived: Czech snowboarder David Horvath, 48 at the time. But two others — Kellner and Harms — lived through the impact and died before rescuers arrived. Kellner was found outside the helicopter. Horvath suffered hypothermia and severe frostbite.
The three Europeans were clients of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, a remote, high-end destination across Cook Inlet from Anchorage that Kellner favored. Lodge owner Triumvirate LLC includes Olympic gold medal skier Tommy Moe, Alaska heli-ski pioneer Mike Overcast and Mike Rheam. Harms’ company, Third Edge Heli, was providing guiding services.
The National Transportation Safety Board final report released Wednesday represents the results of a major investigation that took an unusually long time — 2 1/2 years — between the crash and the publication of the 23-page document.
The official probable cause finding is Russell’s “failure to adequately respond to an encounter with whiteout conditions,” with the lack of Soloy training and competency checks as well as insufficient FAA oversight as contributing factors, according to the report. The agency also found the lack of prompt crash notification contributed to the severity of Horvath’s injuries.
The NTSB investigators cited deficiencies in Soloy’s training of pilot Russell in areas such as relying on instruments rather than sight to fly, and flying near ridgelines.
Especially when it came to using instruments to fly when conditions suddenly changed, “it is likely that the pilot did not meet the qualification standards to be the pilot-in-command of the accident flight,” chief investigator Joshua Cawthra wrote in the NTSB report.
Additionally, the FAA principal operations inspector working with Soloy, herself a former Soloy chief pilot, told investigators that she had not “observed any heli-ski operations in her current position,” according to the NTSB probable cause findings. The inspector said she didn’t remember making any recommendations that Soloy change manuals or procedures.
She said she asked other FAA inspectors to conduct pilot check rides at Soloy because she was not “medically qualified” for that responsibility, the report states. Asked about Soloy’s pilot training to prevent avoidable crashes into terrain, the inspector “stated that the training was conducted ‘in the mountains, in bad weather’ and that she did not normally observe that training,” the report said.
Investigators also learned that Harms had amphetamine and cocaine in his system at the time of the crash but were unable to determine whether the senior lead guide’s drug use played a role, according to the report.
A spokesman for Soloy said the company has no comment. Representatives of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge did not immediately respond to requests for comment. An FAA spokesman said the agency planned to respond but had not provided any additional information as of Wednesday afternoon.
‘Don’t do it’
The day of the March 2021 crash, the lodge contracted with Soloy to bring the group from a rental house in Wasilla to the backcountry above the Knik River Valley. The helicopter was maneuvering low over a ridgeline above the glacier as the pilot looked for a spot to put down when it crashed and tumbled about 900 feet.
The new report provides details not officially released before.
A pilot operating on nearby Knik Glacier a few hours before the crash described stronger winds up high, saying it “was windy as heck at altitude but dead calm on the valley floor,” the report states. A snowmobile tour operator at the glacier described large plumes of snow blowing off Chugach peaks in the area, estimating the wind at 30 to 40 mph from the west.
The lone survivor, Horvath, told investigators that before the last ski run of the day, pilot Russell attempted to land on a ridgeline but then instead lifted off for an attempted second landing, according to the new report. The survivor said that during the second attempt, the snow was “real light” but then the helicopter “became ‘engulfed in a fog which made it appear like a little white room,’ ” the report said.
The report, written by Cawthra, states that description was consistent with whiteout conditions caused by rotor wash kicking up snow while the helicopter hovered.
The same conditions likely continued when Russell tried to land again, “which caused him to lose visual reference with the ridgeline and resulted in the helicopter impacting terrain,” Cawthra wrote. There were no apparent mechanical causes detected that would have “precluded normal operation of the helicopter,” the report states.
Horvath recalled that during the second attempt “another passenger yelled ‘don’t do it’ three times just before the helicopter ‘began going backward real fast and impacted the rocky mountainside several times,’” the investigator wrote.
But the Rescue Coordination Center, responsible for dispatching elite Alaska National Guard pararescuers for mountain missions, didn’t get a notification about an overdue helicopter for more than two hours after the crash. An emergency locator beacon didn’t trigger on impact.
Along with the pilot’s actions, the newly released federal report focuses on the confusion after the crash occurred, as questions mounted about what had happened but no search was launched.
Horvath was still in the helicopter after the crash, his body stuck in the snow and lodged between two others, according to the report. He could see Kellner, outside, sitting in the snow and heard thumping sounds from the bottom of the helicopter, it said. That was likely Harms, described in other accounts as initially surviving the impact.
Horvath told investigators that Kellner, with whom he’d communicated using short messages, started moving down the slope in a seated position, and eventually stopped responding.
In March, the Kellner family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Soloy, lodge owner Triumvirate LLC, and Third Edge Alaska, blaming the delayed rescue for his death from what the suit called “survivable injuries.” Horvath filed a personal injury lawsuit against Triumvirate and others the same month that’s set for trial next year, according to his attorney. Both suits were filed in state court in Anchorage.
Confusion and delay
FAA regulations for chartered aircraft required “flight-tracking” for the Soloy helicopter if it became overdue, the report states. Soloy told investigators that it had delegated flight locating responsibility to Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, but that delegation was not documented in the company’s FAA operations specifications or general operations manual as required, it said.
The day of the crash, the lodge was providing “flight-following” for the helicopter, a different service involving monitoring the trip while it’s underway that’s not required by federal regulations governing chartered flights, the report states. Flight locating legally occurs only once an aircraft is overdue.
That afternoon, a lodge heli-ski guide was following the flight via a website that showed the helicopter’s location and staying in touch with a guide who was checking in hourly using inReach messages, according to the report.
The crash occurred just after 6:30 p.m.
At about 7:15 p.m. after 40 minutes passed and the helicopter’s signal didn’t move, the lodge guide told a supervisor “there had been ‘no positive comms’ ” from Harms for 90 minutes, NTSB investigator Cawthra wrote. “However, the remote area in which the accident flight was operating had limited communication capabilities, and no clear evidence indicated that an accident had occurred.”
The supervisor reached out to Third Edge to help determine the Soloy ship’s status, the report states. A Third Edge representative told the lodge that the flight was still considered “ops normal” and the last lift wasn’t expected until 7:40 p.m., it said. So the supervisor asked the flight follower to keep an eye on the Soloy signal. The guide kept trying to reach the helicopter until almost 7:50 p.m. with no luck.
By then, with the helicopter’s location unknown, it was time to initiate a search, investigators say.
The lodge’s emergency response plan states that the 210th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard should be contacted “if communication with the helicopter is not established by the end of the prearranged or 30 minute grace period,” Cawthra wrote.
Then for some reason, just after 8 p.m., Third Edge mistakenly told the lodge the Soloy helicopter was “inbound” for Wasilla, the report states, further delaying the activation of a search notification. Third Edge notified Soloy that the helicopter was overdue at 8:25 p.m. and five minutes later told Soloy it was activating its emergency response plan, the report said. Soloy activated its own response plan two minutes later.
Soloy notified the Rescue Coordination Center at about 8:52 p.m., according to the report. The center logged the notification at 9:10 p.m., it said. A helicopter contracted by Third Edge found the wreckage at about 9:35 p.m.
An Alaska Air National Guard helicopter got to the site and found the downed helicopter at just after 11:30 p.m., then had to dump fuel before descending to hover over the site and lower pararescuers, the report said. They arrived at the site 5 hours and 40 minutes after the accident — about two hours after the lodge and Soloy activated their emergency response plans.