Kenai legislator and local pilot among 7 killed in midair plane crash

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Soldotna, speaks during a House Minority press availability in April 2017. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

An Alaska state legislator and local pilot were among seven killed in a midair plane crash Friday morning on the Kenai Peninsula.

Rep. Gary Knopp, 63, was alone in his Piper PA-12. He took off from Soldotna’s airport, according to a preliminary investigation, said Clint Johnson, the National Transportation Safety Board’s Alaska chief.

Just to the northeast, 57-year-old Greg Bell, owner of a Soldotna-based air charter business, left in a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver from Longmere Lake, according to Johnson. Bell had five others aboard: A fishing guide and four people in their 20s from South Carolina.

The two planes collided around 8:30 a.m., roughly two miles northeast of Soldotna’s airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Six of those aboard were confirmed dead at the scene, and one died on the way to the hospital, troopers said.

Troopers identified Bell’s five passengers as a 40-year-old guide, David Rogers, from Kansas and four South Carolina residents: 26-year-old Caleb Hulsey, 25-year-old Heather Hulsey, 24-year-old Mackay Hulsey and 23-year-old Kirstin Wright.

A South Carolina television station reported that Caleb Hulsey and Mackay Hulsey were siblings, and their partners were Heather Hulsey and Kirstin Wright. They were in Alaska on vacation.

“This is an unfathomable tragedy for multiple families today,” Alaska’s Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said in a statement.

RELATED: Knopp remembered as ‘one-of-a-kind leader’ in Alaska

What caused the midair crash remains under investigation, Johnson said Friday evening. He said it’s “highly unlikely” that weather was a factor. He said NTSB will piece together the plane wreckage, analyze radar and talk to witnesses to help determine what happened Friday morning. 

Rita Geller, a shop attendant at the Birch Ridge Golf Course, was among those who heard the crash.

She described it as a “really loud, metallic sounding bang.” She looked up. A plane fell from the sky.

“I saw it explode, pieces flying off,” she said. “It was just so shocking to see.”

Wreckage from the plane near the Sterling Highway led to the temporary closure of the roadway.

News of the fatal crash also led to statements from many public officials who offered their condolences, and expressed shock at the sudden deaths. 

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he and his wife, Rose, are heartbroken. He ordered the United States flag and Alaska state flag to be flown at half-staff in honor of Knopp for three days.

Knopp, a Republican from Kenai, was elected to the state House in 2016 after serving on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

He worked for many years as a general contractor and enjoyed flying, diving, hunting and golfing, according to his bio on the Legislature’s website.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said he knew both Knopp and Bell for most of his life.

“Gary has served the Kenai Peninsula community to the best of his ability for decades,” he said in a post on Facebook. “Greg Bell was a dedicated Christian, family man and community member. I have flown with Greg and never felt to be in better, more safety-focused hands while in the air. We are reeling from the loss in our community. Please keep the Knopp and Bell families in your prayers.”

We live in a small, tight community here in the Central Peninsula. When I heard the horrific sounds of a plane crash…

Posted by Peter A. Micciche on Friday, July 31, 2020

Bell is listed as an owner of High Adventure Air Charter. The business offers fishing, hunting and sightseeing trips. The company declined to comment Friday, but said it’s cooperating with the investigation. 

Lawmakers mourned Knopp’s death. They described him as a hard worker, a one-of-a-kind leader and a true Alaskan who will be missed by many.

“More than a legislator, Gary Knopp was a husband, father, son, brother, grandfather, and friend. He will be tremendously missed,” said Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said he was devastated and shocked to learn about the crash and Knopp’s death.

Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, described Knopp as “one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.”

Correction: Pilot Greg Bell was 57 and Gary Knopp was 63, not 67 as initially reported by troopers.

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.