Passenger on Unalaska flight recounts crash landing: ‘He’s not going to stop — we’re going into the water’

The PenAir pilot missed his first attempt at landing flight 3296 Thursday evening in the Aleutian fishing port of Dutch Harbor. So he circled around to the north for a second try.

Patrick Lee, 57, was on the plane returning home with his wife, daughter and granddaughter Thursday night. He said the approach was bumpy.

Continuing coverage: PenAir Plane crashes in Unalaska; one person is dead, others critically injured

The engines reversed and the flaps went up, Lee said. But the plane never slowed down.

“I looked out the window and I could see the terminal, and he was flying to the terminal,” Lee said in a phone interview Friday morning. “I yelled to my wife, ‘He’s not going to stop — we’re going into the water!’ She yelled at my daughter to hunker down and hold on to the baby as tight as possible, which she did.”

As the Saab twin-engine turboprop, with more than three-dozen people aboard, hurtled toward the water at the south end of the runway, the pilot jerked the plane to the right, Lee said. It slid across a road at the end of the runway before teetering to a stop on a rocky bank just above the water.

In the process, something — Lee thinks it was debris — crashed through the side of the plane above where his daughter Cody was sitting, with her baby in her lap. The two weren’t severely injured, but a man sitting nearby was knocked unconscious.

Eleven passengers ultimately were taken to the clinic across a bridge on Unalaska Island, with injuries ranging from “minor to critical,” the Alaska Department of Public Safety said in a prepared statement Friday morning. One passenger died from traumatic injuries, and another was evacuated back to Anchorage by plane, the statement said.

The crash highlighted the danger of landing on Dutch Harbor’s short runway, which is hemmed in by water at its east and west ends and Mount Ballyhoo on its north side. Pilots can face strong winds, and they’re often forced to divert to a longer jet runway in Cold Bay, nearly 200 miles northeast.    

Lee, who runs a heavy equipment shop and has lived in Unalaska for more than three decades, compares the Dutch Harbor runway to landing on an aircraft carrier. 

He and his family were returning from a trip to Idaho for medical appointments and seeing friends. And he said the the PenAir flight, which took off from Anchorage, was smooth until it ran into turbulence on its approach to Dutch Harbor’s airport, as it descended below the clouds.

Even so, Lee said, “we’ve landed in far worse weather.”

On the pilot’s first attempt at landing, Lee said, he came in higher than normal. “I could look at the ground and knew he was going way too fast,” he said.

After circling around Mount Ballyhoo, the pilot lined up again. He hit the ground “a little hard,” though not unusually so, Lee said. Then, he added, “It was almost like he didn’t have brakes.”

“It was either that, or he was maybe thinking he could pop back up again,” Lee said.

The plane flew off the end of the runway and the pilot swerved, which Lee said likely stopped it from sliding into the water. 

“It was a pretty violent crash,” he said.

Lee said only one of the plane’s emergency hatches would open, and passengers focused on unloading the women and children onboard, including 11 students from the swim team from Cordova. They also tried to move the unconscious man before emergency responders took over, he said.

Lee’s granddaughter had a little bump on her head, and his daughter Cody’s hand was smashed. She went to Unalaska’s clinic afterward to get it checked out, but it was so busy that the family left so that staff could help more seriously injured passengers.

Lee credited the quick action of volunteers and other emergency responders.

“They were there fast,” Lee said. “The community really came together.”