Pilots in deadly Denali crashes were both experienced
A week after the crash of a flightseeing plane in Denali Park and Preserve left five people dead, friends and family are coming to terms with the loss of its pilot -- a veteran of the cockpit, just like the pilot in a nearby mass-casualty crash 15 years ago.
Low cloud cover and high winds kept park rangers from finding all five bodies in the downed K2 Aviation de Havilland Beaver until Friday. The crash killed Michigan pilot Craig Layson and four Polish tourists, whose names have not been released by that country's consulate in Los Angeles.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the Aug. 4 crash nearly 11,000 feet high on the Thunder Mountain ridgeline is one of the deadliest civilian crashes in the park's history.
On May 28, 2003, a flightseeing tour crashed near Mount Hunter, killing all four people on board. The NTSB later found the crash was caused by pilot error, concluding that the pilot failed to maintain adequate airspeed, causing the plane to stall.
That pilot was 33-year old Keli Mahoney, a former Iditarod dog musher, and co-owner of McKinley Air. Mahoney's colleagues at the time described her as a seasoned operator.
"That's what's really hard to digest because she really knew the mountain range very well, she was an experienced pilot, she was a very conservative pilot," a co-worker told KTVA shortly after the Mount Hunter crash.
Those who knew Layson had a similar message. A K2 spokesperson says Layson had 43 years of experience under his belt, and that this year was his second season flying in Denali.
NTSB officials note that flying inside the park comes with a unique set of challenges.
"Rough topography, high topography, operating at higher altitudes if you will, wind conditions, weather conditions," said Clint Johnson, the NTSB's Alaska chief. "It's just a very challenging area; most of the operators up there, all of the operators, have specialized training for operating in that area."
Although Mahoney's aircraft and the remains on board were recovered in 2003, park rangers say the challenge of retrieving anything from last week's crash site is too great to run the risk.
The K2 plane, now broken in half, rests on the floor of an unstable crevasse making a recovery mission too dangerous. As a result, park officials says the plane and bodies of those who died on board will stay there.
"We're trying to do our best, and our best is to not have any further accidents or injuries," said Chris Erickson, a mountaineering ranger for the National Park Service who assessed the site. "There is certainly an incomplete feeling, but at the same time that's out of our hands."
NTSB investigators say they will still be able to file a report on Saturday's crash by relying on photos as well as pilot and plane records. The results of a preliminary investigation should be released sometime next week.
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