SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Jet Crashes In Ketchikan, Pilot Killed
By Marie L. Monyak


January 26, 2006
Thursday AM

Ketchikan, Alaska - A Czechoslovakian made, but American owned, L-39 MS Jet crashed in Ketchikan on a snowy Wednesday afternoon killing the pilot. The jet crashed at approximately 12:50 PM into a wooded hill where Martin Street ends, adjacent to the A&P grocery store and a small mobile home park.

jpg Pilot Steven Freeman

The pilot of the ill fated flight was
Major Stephen Freeman (Montana) USMC, Retired.
Photograph provided to SitNews
by Dave Riggs of Los Angeles

One mobile home was destroyed and a few more may have sustained damage. Several vehicles in the area also sustained major damage either from the jet or the debris. There were only minor injuries on the ground from the fiery crash. The pilot of the jet was found deceased a short distance away from the crash site.

The legal owner of the aircraft is Air USA of Las Vegas, Nevada which is a company that provides foreign military aircraft for aviation enthusiast. The pilot was repossessing the aircraft on their behalf and was returning it from Anchorage.

News spreads like wildfire in Ketchikan so it's no surprise that most people have already heard about the tragic accident. In most cases, newsworthy events involve local residents and as a result, we know who they are, we recognize their names, or we at least know their family or friends.

The man who lost his life in our town yesterday was not known to anyone in Ketchikan. As of Wednesday evening the authorities had not released the name of the pilot. However, a close friend of the pilot was contacted and he gave a brief interview by phone and provided some background information. The pilot's wife had already been notified of her husband's death.

The pilot of the ill fated flight was Major Stephen Freeman USMC, Retired. After speaking with Freeman's friend it became apparent that Ketchikan should know something about the pilot who lost his life because he may very well have sacrificed his own to save the lives of some of our local residents.

jgp crashed jet

Firefighters man fire hoses next to the crashed L-39 MS Jet.
Photograph by Marie L. Monyak ©2006

Freeman's good friend is Dave Riggs of Los Angeles and the two had spoken the morning of the crash. Freeman had related to Riggs that his flight the day before from Anchorage was "real hairy." He had flown in a snowstorm and his wingman, another pilot flying alongside Freeman, had lost his gyro, (the control that enables a pilot to fly and eventually land in poor visibility conditions). It was Freeman that talked the fellow pilot down as they flew in formation.

According to Riggs, "Freeman had the experience necessary to help his fellow pilot because he was a Naval Aviator that had logged over 2000 hours as an F-18 flight instructor for the Marine Corp. And you know the Marine Corp, they only allow the best of the best to be instructors." Riggs added, "Freeman had also logged over 100 hours flight time on the L-39, the same jet he flew yesterday. In his career he had logged a total of 3,310 flight hours."

Anyone who's seen the movie Top Gun knows there's a tradition in which all fighter pilots have nicknames, handles as it were. Riggs said, "Montana was Steve's [Freeman] handle because of his accent. As it turns out, Steve was born in Texas, but the handle Montana just stuck."

One mobile home was destroyed and a few more may have sustained damage. Several vehicles in the area also sustained major damage either from the jet or the debris. There were only minor injuries on the ground from the fiery crash.
The second flight seat is visible in this photograph directly in front of the car.
Photograph by Marie L. Monyak ©2006

Although Freeman worked as a pilot for US Customs, Department of Homeland Security out of San Diego, California, he enjoyed taking on extra piloting jobs. Riggs said, "He [Freeman] was just cast last month to be a fighter pilot in a movie."

"As a pilot, Steve [Freeman] had a positive, can do attitude but he preached safety and had the courage to make the no-go weather decision." Riggs said. "Steve left behind a wife and two infant children. He was a friend, mentor and a terrific stick"

Sometime before noon on Wednesday, Freeman was flying IFR, (Instrument Flight Rules) from Sitka to Ketchikan and he had reported to FAA Flight Services in Ketchikan that he had the airport in sight.

According to a Federal Aviation Adminstration (FAA) spokesperson in Anchorage, the FAA Flight Service Station in Ketchikan was contacted by the pilot. According to the FAA, the pilot reported having the Ketchikan airport's runway in sight and there was no report by the pilot of any problem. According to the FAA spokesman, the jet was approaching from the west and was to circle Ketchikan and land to the west.

The weather report at the time of the accident was a half mile visibility with a 500 foot ceiling. There were unconfirmed reports that his landing gear was down.

One witness on the ground said they saw the jet's canopy blow and separate from the jet. Another witness thought they saw the jet dumping fuel before the impact.

jpg crash eyewitness

Ed Boone, eyewitness
Photograph by Marie L. Monyak ©2006

Ed Boone of Juneau, who is employed by Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), was on the bow of the Taku which was tied up across the street from the crash site. Boone said, "I heard a jet on this side of the boat, land side, it's not supposed to be there, I heard the engine and saw the pilot eject and saw the little chute [drogue chute] come out but the big one didn't."

A witness known only as Dave posted his first hand account on the internet, "I watched the pilot eject at the last possible second as he made the plane turn sharply left. In my book he is a true hero, he could probably saved himself by ejecting earlier but I watched the man sacrifice his own life to save those of us that were at the grocery store and all the people working in the warehouse next door."

Major Freeman ejected at tree level and was found approximately 100 yards from the crash site still strapped in the ejection seat with the rockets intact and unfired.

Freeman's friend, Dave Riggs concluded that, from all accounts on the ground, "It appears that the reason for the late ejection decision may have been because Steve [Freeman] was trying to direct the plane toward the clear area so no loss of life on the ground would occur prior to initiating ejection."

From eyewitness accounts, Ketchikan may have been visited by a true hero yesterday, we'll may never know the whole story.

jpg damage

The damage as photographed later Wednesday afternoon.
The Ketchikan Airport can be seen in the distance.
The orange cones circle the second flight seat.
Photograph by Rick Watson ©2006

Over a dozen emergency response teams appeared, some within minutes, others as needed. There was no shortage of acronyms on North Tongass and Martin Street; NTVFD, STFVD, KFD, KPD, AST, DEC, KVRS, KPU, TEMSCO, FAA, NTSB, FBI and the US ARMY.

Dave Martin, Assistant Ketchikan City Manager was designated as the Public Information Officer (PIO) and briefed the press with what information was available.

According to Martin, KPU turned off power and telephone service to the area as Ketchikan Fire Department, North Tongass Volunteer Fire Department, South Tongass Volunteer Fire department and Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad worked together to extinguish fires at both locations: the mobile home which was struck by the jet and the crash site.

Alaska State Troopers and Ketchikan Police assisted with traffic control, crowd control, ground search and manned perimeters in the cold blowing snow.

Until the pilot was found, an all out ground and air search was conducted. TEMSCO provided two helicopters to assist in the search while members of the joint fire departments and rescue squad searched on foot.

The pilot, Major Freeman, was located approximately 100 yards from the crash site and a portion of the ejection seat still had unexploded ordinance which was contained by the US Army.

"The City of Ketchikan cancelled Blue Line bus service for the rest of the day so the bus could be utilized in the evacuation of residents of the mobile home park," Martin said. "The Alaska National Guard Armory will be used to temporarily hold the residents until alternative arrangements can be made at local hotels."

The Federal Bureau of Investigations and the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) have secured the crash site to conduct an investigation into the cause of the accident.

As time goes by and we talk about the day a jet crashed in Ketchikan, let's remember this man we never got to know - the husband and father who didn't walk away.


Marie L. Monyak is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Marie at

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