NTSB: Searchers described poor visibility around Misty Fjords fatal crash site

An aerial view of the plane at the accident site in Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness. (NTSB photo)

Responders say low clouds hung over the valley in the Misty Fjords National Monument in the hours after a fatal plane crash that killed six people in early August, according to the preliminary report released Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

NTSB’s Alaska regional head Clint Johnson says the preliminary report is an early look at the basic facts about the crash. But, he said, officials have yet to determine the cause of the crash.

“We were able to document the accident site, and also the wreckage at the site there,” he said. “We also had a chance to go ahead and document the wreckage once it was removed, and we had an aeronautical engineer basically go over the wreckage with a fine-toothed comb.”

According to the report, the Southeast Aviation tour on Aug. 5 was carrying five passengers from a Holland America cruise ship on the pilot’s second tour of the day. The de Havilland Beaver float plane departed around 9:40 a.m.

It flew through Misty Fjords, landing on Big Goat Lake and then departed to return to Ketchikan Harbor, said the report.

The report said the plane crashed into a tree in an area of heavily-wooded, mountainous terrain about 18 miles northwest of Ketchikan. Investigators released photos of the wreckage wrapped around a tall tree at an elevation of roughly 1,750 feet.

RELATED: Fatal crash near Ketchikan renews concerns about safety of Alaska aviation

According to NTSB’s report, visibility was relatively good around Ketchikan’s airport on Aug. 5. A few clouds floated at about 700 feet over Ketchikan International Airport, with a broken cloud ceiling about 1,800 feet, the report said.

But other pilots who were flying passenger flights on the morning of the accident said there low clouds in the valley where the crash happened, said the report. Pilots who were helping with the rescue “reported that the weather was overcast and the mountain tops were obscured,” said the report.

Investigators don’t point to a cause for the crash — that’ll come later, after an investigation that is likely to take at least a year. But at this point, Johnson said, it doesn’t appear that the plane had anything wrong with it in the moments before impact.

“We don’t suspect any mechanical issues at this point, but we are making absolutely sure we are looking at every possibility in this accident at this point,” he said.

He said investigators will examine the engine as the investigation continues, and NTSB officials will also look into the operator, Southeast Aviation.

“The operations group and one of our meteorologists will be returning to Ketchikan within the next few weeks. They’re going to continue doing interviews with the operator, and probably also the FAA, and also witnesses, if we have some more witnesses there,” Johnson said. “They still have a fair amount to do.”

Southeast Aviation declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. So far, the Ketchikan-based airline has only released a statement expressing its sympathy for the victims and their families.

The six killed this month increased the tally to at least 21 people who have died in plane crashes in the Ketchikan area since 2015. A recent investigation by KUCB and ProPublica found that Alaska is home to a growing share of the nation’s fatal accidents involving small commercial aircraft.

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