Pilot ID'd in fatal flightseeing plane crash near Denali
The pilot in the fatal flightseeing plane crash near Denali Saturday night has been identified.
According to National Park Service spokeswoman Katherine Belcher, Craig Layson of Saline, Michigan was the pilot of the de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver plane that when down on Aug. 4 near the summit of what's known as Thunder Mountain at an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet.
Monday morning, National Park Service officials said four of the five people who were on board the flightseeing plane out of Talkeetna were found dead and the fifth person was still missing and presumed dead.
"Search operations have been halted because we did make it to the site of the downed aircraft," said Belcher. "We did confirm that four passengers onboard are deceased, a fifth passenger is assumed dead."
No word on whether Layson was among the bodies found.
"We haven't confirmed what the fatalities are," Belcher said. "We don't know if one of them's the pilot, if all four are passengers. We don't have that information yet. It was a quick in and out because the weather was moving in. So for the safety of our staff, they went down, did what they needed to do."
NPS mountaineering rangers took advantage of a brief window of clearing weather and reached the wreckage for the first time since the plane went down on Saturday night.
"An NPS ranger was short-hauled to the crash site (suspended beneath the helicopter) where he dug through the snow that had filled the aircraft and found the bodies of four of the five passengers," NPS wrote in a statement Monday morning. "There were no footprints or disturbances leading away from the site and there were no other signs to indicate any of the passengers made it out of the plane."
Chris Erikson, NPS mountaineering ranger who searched the scene said he believes the window of time they were able to search the wreckage was less than five minutes.
"As best I could, I worked my way through the aircraft just counting people, and checking people to see if there were any signs of life," he said. "I was able to find four, but not the fifth, given the area that I was working, there's still a pretty good chance that person's still in there. I couldn't get to everywhere. I did not comprehensively search the aircraft."
Erickson said there was some snow drifted around the wreckage and did not go inside of the aircraft due to safety concerns.
"I was just able to see the inside of part of the plane, not all of it, I was able to see some of the occupants, but had to dig around to find any of the equipment that might have been on board otherwise, it looked mostly like an airplane crash, there was items scattered throughout."
A member of the Polish Consulate in Anchorage says the four passengers onboard that flightseeing plane were all Polish tourists who traveled to Alaska in a group of nine people. Five people in the group were in Talkeetna waiting for the other four to return. Stanislaw Borucki, Honorary Consul of Poland, says it's tough notifying families back in Poland of the tragic deaths.
"One of the elderly mothers she was calling, she did not speak English. And try to tell that your son is dead. And then she has to call the girlfriend. One of the young men that was in the flight, he was getting married. To tell the young lady that your boyfriend, your future husband, is dead, it's very difficult," said Borucki.
We're told the other five polish residents who were visiting ended up cutting their trip short. They had planned to travel to Seward, Whittier, Homer and other places.
Belcher said the last time a crash like this has happened in Denali was back in 2003.
"Flightseeing operators have a very good record in Denali," she said. "The last time that we had a plane crash in the park, was in May 2003."
Crews are still waiting for the weather to cooperate so that they can make it back out to investigate the crash site.
"We're waiting for the weather to clear and during that time we're going to best decide how to proceed with recovery operations," Belcher said.
A temporary flight restriction has been put in place in the area of Denali National Park & Preserve to minimize traffic in the area of the crash site.
All four of the passengers aboard the K2 aviation de Havilland Beaver (DHC-2) are from Poland, according to the NPS. Their names are being withheld pending notification of family members.
Weather in the area is expected to be cloudy, but relatively dry with light winds. Crews can expect rain showers beginning this afternoon, with the chance for some snow/rain mix. Showers will likely continue on and off into Tuesday.
"The pilot was able to make a satellite phone call to K2 Aviation,” National Park Service spokeswoman Katherine Belcher said Sunday. “He did report some injuries, he made another phone call about an hour later at 7 p.m., and the is the last known communication anyone has had with the pilot."
The Park Service is conducting the search along with the Alaska Air National Guard, the U.S. Army and Alaska State Troopers.
Monday's temporary flight restrictions include the following areas:
- North to Mount Hunter
- East to the Big Y of the Tokositna Glacier
- South to Avalanche Spire
- West to the center of the Kahiltna Glacier
- Surface to 18,000'
Search organizers say the plane had likely been on its way back to the airport when the crash took place. Because of the altitude, any rescue will have to come by air.
“It's a very tricky terrain up there,” Belcher said. “It's basically a sheer vertical cliff: lots of ice, lots of snow, lots of rock."
Each de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, like the one that crash, is equipped with survival gear including food, sleeping bags, a pot and a stove. But, what the pilot and his four passengers really need right now is, better weather.
"Unfortunately it's zero visibility and very low cloud cover, so, our search crews have been visually unable to locate the crash site,” Belcher said. “We know approximately where it is, but, we just haven't been able to put eyes on it."
Temperatures overnight Sunday near the crash site were expected to range from roughly 20 degrees to freezing, with a nearly 90 percent chance of snow.
The flight was arranged through a Polish tour company, according to Belcher.
K2 Aviation released a statement Monday morning saying they send their thoughts and prayers to the families of their guests and the pilot involved in the incident.
"We will be suspending flightseeing tours until further notice as we give our staff time to grieve this loss," K2 wrote.
Chris Clint, Dave Leval, Zach Rover, Mary Simton, Liz Raines and Jason Sear contributed to this report.
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