The National Transportation Safety Board released a report on Thursday (9-1) with more details about a float plane crash that killed six people in Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan last August.
The report shows that weather was deteriorating in the few hours before the fatal Southeast Aviation crash, which happened against a steep mountainside with dense trees about 18 miles from Ketchikan.
A passenger on an earlier flight described how the pilot, Rolf Lanzendorfer, was “ducking” under clouds during their trip. The report also says that the pilot advised the owner of the airline to cancel that day’s trip to Hyder. The owner is quoted as saying “he didn’t have the ceiling back there for it.”
But, Lanzendorfer said the weather at that moment was good. And when the plane took off, there were five passengers onboard. All were guests on a Holland America Line ship calling on Ketchikan that day.
Tracking devices on the plane showed a landing on a nearby lake around 10:30 that morning, less than 20 minutes before the crash. It took off in the direction of Ketchikan, flying near the Behm Canal. Visibility was low. Photos taken by passengers show thick clouds through the area. The plane continued to descend.
A weather advisory warning of poor visibility was still in place when the crash happened. In particular, it was an AIRMET Sierra Advisory. That’s an advisory specific to “extensive mountain obscuration” and visibility of three miles of less that affects an area more than 50% of the advisory’s time window, according to weather.gov
That advisory also warned of light rain and potential visibility of below three miles.
Other pilots who had been flying that morning reported low clouds in the area. Conditions were similar at weather cameras in Ketchikan, as well as on Minx and Twin islands.
Emergency signals reached responders at 10:50 a.m. By 11:20 a.m., the wreckage had been found, with no survivors.
The transportation safety board reported that the crash was at 1,750 feet above sea level. That’s where part of the left wing was found — the other part of the wing was found in a tree along the debris path, where other pieces also were scattered.
The new report also details the pilot’s autopsy, which turned up no evidence of alcohol, drugs or carbon monoxide poisoning. His cause of death was listed as blunt force injuries. Lanzendorfer also didn’t indicate taking any medications on his most current paperwork.
The pilot was involved in an accident the month before the fatal crash. He hit a buoy and flipped over near Prince of Wales Island, damaging the plane but was uninjured. He did not receive formal discipline or additional training from Southeast Aviation after the incident.
It was announced last month that the families of four of the passengers killed are suing Holland America and Southeast Aviation. The lawsuit against the cruise line argues that it didn’t do enough to warn guests about the risks of the tours. The suit against the tour company alleges that it didn’t properly vet the pilot before allowing him back after the July accident.
Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.