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Former NTSB investigator was pilot in crash that killed 4 near Chugiak

The pilot of a small plane that crashed near Chugiak Wednesday morning, killing all four people onboard, was a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator with extensive aviation experience in Alaska.

Anchorage Fire Department Chief Dennis LeBlanc said the crash, off Beach Lake Road, was reported shortly after 9 a.m.

"An aircraft was found fully engulfed in flames," LeBlanc said. "There are four fatalities."

Anchorage police identified the victims of the crash Wednesday afternoon as pilot George Kobelnyk, 64, and co-pilot Christian Bohrer, 20. The two passengers were Sarah Glaves, 36, and Kyle Braun, 27.

The aircraft was registered to Kobelnyk, based on a tail number provided by National Transportation Safety Board investigator Shaun Williams. Kobelnyk had worked for both the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration in Alaska, according to his wife. According to the FAA database, Bohrer had a commercial pilot certificate issued in May 2015 and a flight instructor certificate issued in September 2015.

FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the plane crashed under "unknown circumstances."

Williams said at a 3 p.m. news conference that the debris field spanned about 100 yards. The plane was in pieces in a densely wooded area.

It had taken off from the Birchwood Airport. Williams said one witness had watched the plane take off, but he had not yet spoken with that person.

"The airplane fragmented upon impact with some of the trees," he said. "We'll know more once we start moving the wreckage."

Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Chief Clifton Dalton said he heard about the crash at 9:07 a.m., when a citizen reported hearing the crash and seeing a plume of black smoke.

Deborah Schaffer, a volunteer staying in an RV space at Birchwood Camp, not far from the crash site, said she didn't see the plane go down, but heard it.

Schaffer said she heard a plane fly "really low" overhead despite nearby power lines and then heard the plane sputter, followed by a loud thud. She pulled on shoes and a jacket and ran outside.

"I could see black smoke," she said. "That's when I called it in."

Dalton said firefighters drove on two four-wheelers about a half-mile down mushing trails before discovering the fiery wreck.

Virginia McMichael of Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue said the plane had ignited a brush fire, but crews were dealing with it. Nine units were at the scene shortly after the crash, she said.

Firefighters had the flames under control in 10 or 15 minutes, Dalton said.

"We were fortunate it wasn't a super dry day," he said.

The fire could make the investigation more difficult, Williams said.

"That takes away a lot of our evidence," Williams said. "So we have to go back to what we do have and work from there."

By 1:30 p.m., the bodies of the four victims were carried out from the crash site along muddy trails on the back of a four-wheeler, according to Dalton.

'He could do it all'

George Kobelnyk's wife, Susan Kobelnyk, said her husband was "a very experienced aviator" who flew daily.

"Otherwise, he's just a guy who loved his family," Susan Kobelnyk said.

George Kobelnyk served as the president of the Mustang Hockey Association in the early to mid-1990s, said acquaintance Chuck Homan. Kobelnyk volunteered his time to coach and referee youth hockey teams, Homan said.

"He was very dedicated to the association," he said.

Current NTSB Alaska region chief Clint Johnson, who started at the agency in 1998, said he actually took Kobelnyk's place at the Alaska office. Kobelnyk had left some years earlier to work as a senior manager for the FAA.

Kobelnyk is quoted as an NTSB investigator in Anchorage Daily News articles beginning in 1986. He investigated at least one deadly aviation accident every year up until 1996, the articles show.

"He was a very good investigator," Johnson said. "He was a real champion for safety. It's a sad day for the Alaska office of NTSB."

Kobelnyk is listed as the only contact for Alaska Aviation Adventures on the company website. The company provides mountain flying and flight instruction, flightseeing and other services, according to its website.

Kobelnyk held multiple certifications, including as a flight instructor and transport pilot, according to a federal pilot registration database. He also held multiengine airline and helicopter certifications.

"He did everything," Susan Kobelnyk said. "He could do it all."

'A really bright young guy'

Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said he first got to know Bohrer in Juneau. Bohrer traveled to the state capital with his 4-H Club as a teenager. Stoltze said he remembered him as thoughtful, smart and deliberate.

"I connected with him," said Stoltze, who lives near the Birchwood Airport. "He was a really bright young guy and was really excited about learning about government. He had a passion for his community."

Stoltze said he stayed in touch with Bohrer, who returned to Juneau a couple of times. Stoltze attended Bohrer's Chugiak High School graduation. Bohrer also played on the school's baseball team, and Stoltze said he ran into him at some of his games.

"One of the good things about this job is getting to work with young people and Christian Bohrer was just one of the most outstanding young people I ever got to encounter," Stoltze said.

Stoltze said Bohrer was brimming with potential.

"He's somebody (who) would have accomplished a lot of good things," Stoltze said. "He was just one of those all-American good kids. His parents were proud of him."

'We're just all in shock'

It wasn't clear what exactly brought the others together onto the plane Wednesday. One of the passengers, Kyle Braun, may have been flying for work, according to a family friend.

Braun grew up in the Butte and graduated from Palmer High School, said Kelli Hyden. He "traveled the world," she said.

He loved to hunt, fish, hike and go four-wheeling. He had been taking care of his mother since his father died about a year ago, Hyden said.

"He was a great guy -- caring, compassionate, generous. He took care of his family." she said. "We're just all in shock."

Hyden said Braun worked as a drafter and took Wednesday's flight for his job, though she said she didn't know the specifics of where they were going.

"He was flying for work and he was really eager to learn something new," she said.

Questions remain

Many questions about the crash remained unanswered by late Wednesday. Williams said he did not have information on where the plane was headed or what caused it to crash.

Williams said the plan was to return Thursday to recover the wreckage and move it to a storage location for further investigation. He said representatives from Cessna Aircraft Company and Lycoming Engines would help with the investigation.

"No two airplanes come apart the same way. So that's a challenge. We have to sit there and go through every single piece, look at every break, every bend in the metal to determine exactly what caused this unfortunate event," he said.

Tegan Hanlon reported from Chugiak. Zaz Hollander reported from Palmer. Chris Klint and Jerzy Shedlock reported from Anchorage.

Correction: This article originally stated George Kobelnyk was 54 years old; he was 64.

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