A flare in the dark was the first sign a Coast Guard helicopter crew saw from three people found alive Monday night more than a day after their plane was reported overdue from Anchorage to Kenai.
Coast Guard spokesman Chief Petty Officer Shawn Eggert said all three people from the Cessna 180 were picked up at about 6 p.m. Monday by an MH-60 Jayhawk chopper. They were at a ridgeline airstrip in the vicinity of the Chakachatna River, on the west side of Cook Inlet about 25 miles northwest of Kenai. A Coast Guard photo released Tuesday showed the plane resting upside down as the passengers walk away from the aircraft.
The Cessna's occupants were identified as pilot Josh Smith, his daughter Danielle Smith and John White in a Facebook post by the Alaska District Church of the Nazarene. A post Monday evening thanked people for their prayers since Sunday afternoon, when the plane took off from Anchorage's Lake Hood but never made it to Kenai.
Paul Hartley, district superintendent for the Nazarene's 28 Alaska churches, said in a phone interview that those on board the plane were members of the Soldotna Church of the Nazarene.
"They got home last night with their families and were reunited, and everything's doing good," Hartley said. "Those families have been in the church for years and years and years."
Helicopters and planes from the Alaska Air National Guard, the Coast Guard and the Civil Air Patrol spent much of Monday searching along routes from Anchorage to Kenai and beyond.
"It appears that the pilot of the plane fired a flare when they saw the helicopter, which is of course good for us," the Coast Guard's Eggert said. "They were able to walk the survivors to the helicopter and then transport them to emergency medical services in Anchorage."
Eggert said the three had "no perceptible injuries," according to the helicopter crew.
Noreen Price, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said that the pilot had diverted to the west side of the inlet during Sunday's flight.
"He chose that route because he thought weather would be better on the west side," Price said. "He was attempting to do a full-stop landing on an unprepared snow-covered airstrip, and in that process he nosed over the aircraft."
The investigator said she did not get a clear answer on why the pilot chose to try to land on the airstrip. The pilot had landed there on occasion prior to Sunday's crash landing; nothing wrong with the plane prompted the grounding, Price said.
"The pilot wanted to make a landing at this airstrip," she said.
Calls for help using the plane's built-in radio went unanswered, Price said. The three occupants' time spent stranded "consisted of trying to survive until rescue," she said. They stayed warm by lighting fires and using supplies found in the plane, according to Price.
The NTSB will not visit the crash site as the three survivors walked away uninjured and the plane reportedly sustained minor damage, Price said. Photographs of the crash site and search-and-rescue records still need to be collected to confirm the pilot's account, she said.
Price also plans to investigate how the Cessna's emergency locator transmitter performed during the search. Its older 121.5 MHz transmitter is commonly used among general aviation pilots, she said, but they're not ideal for providing search crews with location information.
"We want to look at survival issues," she said. "While this incident had a good ending, some of them don't."