A year after Denali flightseeing crash kills five, pain still present, but plane 'nowhere to be seen'

By  | 

TALKEETNA, Alaska (KTUU) - For all the beauty found in sightseeing near Denali, there is also risk, which came to life in a horrific crash that killed five on the mountain last August.

A year later, as the crash haunts friends, family and those tied in any way to the flying community around Talkeetna, the hopes of ever recovering the victims' bodies are fading further, with the plane disappearing from view during the months following the crash. (Courtesy of KTUU)

"It was big deal, a big deal for everybody," said Denali National Park and Preserve Lead Mountaineering Ranger Chris Erickson, "and it was a difficult one to successfully and safely manage. It's something we train for and prepare for, and prefer to never have to deal with if possible.

"These incidents have a way of sticking with people," Erickson said. "While life goes on, to a certain extent, it's still pretty fresh in everybody's memory."

A year later, as the crash haunts friends, family and those tied in any way to the flying community around Talkeetna, the hopes of ever recovering the victims' bodies are fading further, with the plane disappearing from view during the months following the crash.

"The scene had changed dramatically," Erickson said of the conditions in the area near the original crash site, a spot NPS rangers visited earlier this week. "The airplane was not visible."

It was at around 5 p.m. on Aug. 4, 2018, that the K2 Aviation plane left Talkeetna, Alaska, for what was supposed to be a one-hour flightseeing tour. The five people on board - Craig Layson, a pilot with almost 45 years worth of flying experience and hailing from Michigan, and four Polish passengers visiting Alaska on an overseas tour - never made it home.

"It is very, very sad," said Stan Borucki, Honorary Consul of Poland for Alaska, who had to deliver the news of what had happened to the families of the Polish passengers. "And when you tell somebody, to say their son or the young person has died, it is difficult to relay that message."

Erickson and his team within the NPS system told Borucki and others who would pass the information on to families that rangers had discovered the plane was no longer in its original position back in April of 2019, the first time they visited this year. They have since tried to locate the wreckage again, traveling to the to the crash site just days ago, no avail.

Along with ever-changing conditions on the mountain, one of the biggest issues - which slowed the recovery efforts from the beginning - is the terrain around where the incident actually happened. According to a National Transportation Safety Board report, the plane was meant to fly over a few different glaciers before going over to Denali Base Camp and then returning to Talkeetna's airport. Instead, while the plane's global positioning system indicated the aircraft flew over base camp at around quarter to 6 that evening, the tracker suddenly stopped moving. That was in the area, the National Park Service said, of a feature commonly referred to as Thunder Mountain, a location along a popular flight route. At 11,000 feet, perched atop a particularly unstable plot of ice and snow, the plane came to rest on a knife-edge ridge about 14 miles from Denali's summit.

An emergency response, including members of the military and a crew from the NPS Talkeetna Ranger Station, was launched. As for any chance of recovering the victims' bodies, possibly ever, Erickson said that how the plane is now situated is exponentially more dangerous than it was before. It is therefore even less likely the plane and people inside will be recovered or even seen at any point in the foreseeable future.

"The serac or hanging glacier that was holding that airplane up had completely released and calved down to the bottom of the glacier, we presume," he said, noting that the Nov. 30 earthquake may have contributed to triggering the activity on the mountain.

"But a large chunk of the mountain more or less was gone," he said, "and the airplane was included in the chunk of that mountain, nowhere to be seen."

As for the flying community in Talkeetna, K2 Aviation wasn't ready to speak with Channel 2, but owner Suzanne Rust said in a written statement that, "As the days have passed, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the families of our guests, the family of our pilot, and the staff that navigated some of the hardest days our company has ever experienced."