SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Fatal Plane Crashes Average One a Year
Changing weather is the frequent cause



August 25, 2007

Ketchikan, Alaska - The fatal crashes of two floatplanes in the Ketchikan area this summer is a sad reminder that local air travel can be a hazardous business.

The crash of a Taquan DeHavilland Beaver killed five people in Misty Fjords on July 24 and the crash of a Seawind Beaver in Traitors Cove on Aug. 16 also killed five, although four other people survived.

A review of Federal Aviation Administration accident reports over the last 30 years shows that many years go by without any fatal crashes, but that some years have multiple fatal crashes. One year, 1996, had four fatal
crashes in seven months, while there were three fatal crashes in one week in August of 1978.

Not surprisingly, most crashes take place in the most active months in the summer. But rapidly changing weather seems to be factor in the vast majority of the crashes, even the summer ones.

It is also no surprise that the FAA finds pilot error to be the major factor in the majority of the local crashes as well. The most common accident cause cited in FAA reports is the pilot continuing to fly as the weather deteriorates from visual rules to instrument rules.

That does not sit well with many pilots who claim the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board seem inclined to find fault with pilots almost exclusively, particularly in cases in which the pilot dies in the crash and is unable to contradict the FAA and NTSB conclusions.

Since 1975, the FAA has reported 88 plane crashes in the Ketchikan area, just under three a year on average. Most did not involve fatalities. But there have been 30 crashes involving fatalities in those 32 years, just about a third of the total crashes.

The first one in that time period was one of the most spectacular. An Alaska Airlines 727 landing in snow and fog on April 5, 1976 overshot the runway and crashed into a gully just beyond the runway. Although the plane burned, there was only a single fatality, a handicapped woman who was unable to get out of the plane in time. Quick work by local rescuers was credited with getting the flight crew out of the damaged cockpit just in time.

The FAA later determined that pilot error was the primary cause of the crash.

Some 14 months passed before the next fatal crash, involving a Forest Service helicopter that broke apart in mid air because of airframe failure while taking off from Ketchikan. The pilot was killed.

Six Fatal Crashes in 1978

The year 1978 was one of the worst for local flying and August of 1978 proved to be the worst month in Ketchikan aviation history.

First on Aug 25, a Webber Airlines Grumman Goose crashed into the water not far from Labouchere Bay on Prince of Wales, killing the pilot and all 11 passengers. The plane sank in deep water and the FAA was never able to determine an exact cause.

Then three days later, August 28, two people died when a Cessna crashed on its way from Ketchikan to Wrangell. The FAA later determined that the pilot made an error regarding instrument flight rules.

Two days after that a Beech with six people on board on their way from Prince George B.C. to Ketchikan crashed killing all aboard. The FAA later determined that the pilot had continued to fly as the weather deteriorated.

One month later, in October, a puzzling crash killed one of the local legends of Ketchikan air history, Ed Todd. Todd's plane crashed into a mountain in Misty Fjords on an apparently clear day. The FAA never determined a cause for the accident.

One month later, a Beaver flying for Tyee Airlines crashed on its way to Hydaburg, killing all five aboard. Once again, the FAA determined the cause was the pilot flying into deteriorating conditions.

Three years would pass before another fatal accident. This one involved a pilot who was unfamiliar with the area. The Cessna 340 had four people on board on a flight from Heppner, Oregon on Sept. 5, 1981 when it crashed into Tongass Narrows while attempting to land at the airport. The FAA later determined that the pilot was both unfamiliar with the aircraft and was operating beyond his abilities. All four people on the plane died.

A year later, in July of 1982, a plane on its way to Metlakatla crashed on Gravina shortly after taking off killing the pilot. The FAA later determined the pilot flew in deteriorating weather.

One of the worst crashes locally, occurred in December of 1982 when a Tyee Beaver crashed in fog in Twelve Mile Arm. Eight people died and the FAA determined that flying visual rules in instrument rules conditions was the reason for the crash.

Two years later, a Pro Mech Beaver crashed on a flight from Yes Bay to Ketchikan killing two passengers. The FAA later determined that the pilot had flown into a canyon and had been unable to climb fast enough to get out. The pilot reported that a downdraft led to the accident, but the FAA faulted his decision making.

Three years later, in 1987, a helicopter coming back to the Temsco heliport and a floatplane taking off from the airport collided over Gravina Island. The floatplane managed to land safely but the helicopter crashed killing three people. The FAA determined that both pilots failed to maintain appropriate visual contact.

In February of the following year, a Beech with two people on board crashed 1,400 feet short of the Gravina runway killing both people on board. The FAA determined that fog and snow were contributing factors.

On January 15, 1989 a Temsco Beaver flight from Ketchikan to Klawock encountered bad weather enroute and attempted to turn around. It crashed into the water killing both people on board. The FAA found the weather to be a significant factor.

Two years later, on July 21, 1991, another Temsco flight, this one a Pilatus Islander, on a commuter flight to Wrangell, ran into bad weather and attempted to return to Ketchikan but crashed killing all four people on
board. The FAA said the main cause was that the pilot was trying to operate with visual flight rules in instrument flight conditions.

Two years later, in February of 1993, a CRI helicopter engaged in logging activities crashed killing two people. The FAA determined two main factors to the cause, improper maintenance and overloading of the helicopter.

1996 Also A Bad Year

The next fatal crash involved a Republic Seabee at Eagle Lake in May of 1996. Initially the pilot reported that the plane's tail had sunk in the water of the lake. After mechanics flew out to the lake, the airplane was brought ashore and repaired. The pilots returned to Wrangell. The Seabee did not arrive on schedule and search crews returned to the lake to find pieces of it on the water, but most of the craft at the bottom of the lake.

The FAA was unable to determine what caused the plane to crash.

Two months later, another helicopter, this one operated by Silver Bay Logging, at Shelter Cove crashed killing the co-pilot. The FAA determined that a tail rotor bearing failed, causing the crash.

On October 13th, a Seaside Aviation Beaver carrying a pilot and two goat hunters on a trip to Reflection Lake crashed into the mountains 38 miles north of Ketchikan. All aboard were killed. The FAA later determined that weather was a factor in the crash.

There was one more fatal crash that year. On December 12, a Taquan Beaver crashed on takeoff at Port Johnson, 18 miles southwest of Ketchikan. The passenger, who survived, reported that the plane had just taken off when a gust of wind struck the plane and the pilot lost control. The plane crashed into the water and the passenger managed to escape but the pilot did not. That brought an end to one of the worst years in Ketchikan aviation history.

On September 6, 1997 an a Twin Commander 500 crashed 28 miles north of Ketchikan on a flight from Wrangell to Everett, Washington. The 81-year-old pilot and his wife were killed. The FAA later determined that a fuel line had ruptured and that the pilot had apparently caused a wing to come off when he tried to get the plane to climb too steeply.

Less than three weeks later a local pilot for Pro Mech was killed when his Beaver crashed on takeoff from the Airport Seaplane dock. The FAA later reported the pilot had been too aggressive in his takeoff and that the airplane had been improperly modified for short take offs and landings. It also noted the local FAA office had missed the improper modifications even through the plane had been inspected more than a dozen times in the previous two years.

On August 5, 1998, a Cessna owned by Taquan crashed during a Misty Fjords flight seeing trip. One of the passengers was killed. The FAA later determined that the plane ran out of fuel because the pilot made a mistake during an earlier refueling.

In September of that same year, a pilot flying a Cessna wheel plane from Anchorage to California was killed during a crash after stopping over in Ketchikan. The plane crashed on Annette Island. The FAA later noted that the pilot had attempted to fly visually into instrument flight conditions but it also noted that a replacement vacuum pump on the engine may have failed leading to the crash. The engine was destroyed by the crash so the vacuum pump could not be tested.

There were several crashes over the next four years but no fatal ones until a helicopter crashed in Winstanley Lake the night of August 28, 2002 killing the pilot and a passenger. Using information from the pilot's handheld GPS, the FAA later surmised that the pilot had experienced spatial disorientation in the darkness.

The next local plane crash is assumed to have occurred in the Ketchikan area in 2003. An Alon Aircoupe with two people aboard left Port Hardy, B.C. at midday on August 17, 2003 and never arrived. An extensive search of the area turned up no trace of the plane.

Before this summer, the most recent fatal air crash in Ketchikan was the crash in January, 2006 of a surplus military jet in the trailer park behind the A&P Grocery Store, The pilot ejected and was killed, but there were no fatalities on the ground.

The FAA determined that that the pilot attempted to land in rapidly deteriorating weather and didn't follow the proper instrument landing procedures leading to his plane to briefly touch down in the middle of Tongass Narrows before regaining some altitude and then crashing on the opposite side of Tongass Narrows from the airport.


On the Web:

Historical Ketchikan... Historical Alaska - More Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer

Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
To republish this article, the author requires a publication fee.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2007

Post a Comment
        View Comments
Submit an Opinion - Letter

Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska