Aerial search for occupants of crashed Knik Arm plane suspended

The Alaska Air National Guard said late Saturday afternoon that the official aerial search had been suspended for a pilot and passenger believed to be missing from a plane that crashed into Knik Arm nearly two days ago.

Over two days, aircraft scoured the beaches and coastal waters in the area, Alaska Air National Guard spokesperson Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead said in an email. After searching the area Friday evening, the Civil Air Patrol sent out three aircraft at 9:30 a.m. Saturday for a day-long sweep.

A ground search was ongoing, Olmstead said.

"Friends of the pilot's family will conduct an aerial search with two aircraft this afternoon and into the evening," Olmstead wrote. "They also continue to search public access beaches on foot."

She said that wildlife officers from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and security forces personnel would be searching the coastal areas of the base on all-terrain vehicles Saturday afternoon and evening.

Alaska State Troopers did not publicly identify the pilot and passenger on board the plane Saturday, but family members identified the pilot as Seth Fairbanks, a 29-year-old equipment operator who lives in McGrath. Federal Aviation Administration records list Seth Fairbanks as the owner of the plane.

Grant Fairbanks said his son was flying into the area for a family gathering on Friday.

When no word came, family members went to the Birchwood airport to look for him, Grant Fairbanks said. Around the same time, they learned a plane had been found.

"Knowing the color of the plane, the direction, the time, we knew it was him," Grant Fairbanks said Saturday night.

About 30 people searched the east side of Cook Inlet on Friday, and about the same number searched the west side on Saturday, he said; friends were also out in planes, searching from the air.

Grant Fairbanks said his hopes weren't high.

"People don't survive in that water for longer than half an hour," he said.

He said his son has been a pilot for about three years, and attended a special flight training school in California last winter.

"He was a very proficient pilot," Grant Fairbanks said. He said his son frequently flew into Birchwood Airport.

One of six children, Seth Fairbanks grew up on his family's homestead in Bethel. Grant Fairbanks said his son was athletic, a standout basketball player in high school, and an outdoorsman. He twice visited south Sudan to build water wells as a volunteer.

"He was a very helpful person," Grant Fairbanks said. "Just a really good person."

He said the family planned to hold a memorial service in Anchorage in the coming days, as well as services in McGrath and Bethel.

Earlier Saturday, a helicopter and boat lifted the wreckage of the Piper PA-18 Super Cub out of the water and took it to Birchwood Airport in Chugiak. An investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board was present as the plane, its tail severely smashed, was disassembled and placed onto the bed of a truck.

Shaun Williams, the NTSB investigator on the scene, said the wreckage was being taken to a secure facility near Palmer or Wasilla. Early next week, investigators and manufacturers will begin examining the wreckage to figure out the cause of the crash, Williams said.

Troopers said the plane was discovered at 6:10 a.m. Friday about two miles northeast of Birchwood Airport. It was found upside down and partially submerged on the mud flats.

The crash was first reported about midnight Friday. DeSpain said that troopers believe that an occupant of the plane made a 911 call.