The pilot of a K2 Aviation flightseeing plane that crashed near Denali in early August lived long enough to report two possible fatalities before communications ceased, according to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report released Thursday, and reported on by Anchorage Daily News. The crash killed all five people aboard the de Havilland Beaver, making it the deadliest in recent history for an air taxi flying into Denali National Park and Preserve.
The plane left Talkeetna’s airport just after 5 pm Aug. 4 and crashed an hour later, authorities said. Pilot Craig Layson, of Michigan, and four Polish visitors died in the crash. The plane came to rest in a crevasse at almost 11,000-feet altitude, high on a knife-edge ridge of Thunder Mountain about 14 miles from Denali’s summit. K2 told investigators the one-hour tour was scheduled to fly over multiple glaciers and the Denali climbers’ base camp on Kahiltna Glacier at 7,200-feet, then return to Talkeetna.
Before he died, Layson conducted two satellite phone calls with the K2 office within an hour of the crash. The NTSB preliminary report describes the first call, made by Layson to K2’s main operations number:
“The pilot stated that they had impacted a mountain and needed rescue. The call only lasted a couple minutes before the connection was lost.”
K2 tried several times after that to contact Layson without success, Williams said. “Then finally it went through.” That second call lasted an unknown period of time, he said, during which Layson told K2 “he was trapped in the wreckage and there were possibly two fatalities,” the report stated. “No further information was received before the connection was once again lost.”
Bad weather kept rescuers from reaching the craft for more than 36 hours. The National Park Service high-altitude helicopter headed for the coordinates transmitted from the downed plane just after 8 pm but couldn’t reach the site, the report says. The Alaska Air National Guard and Army National Guard also participated in the search and rescue, as did the U.S. Army. A ranger lowered by helicopter the morning of Aug. 6 found the bodies of the pilot and three passengers inside; the body of a fourth passenger was found four days later toward the back of the plane, according to the report. The plane was fractured behind the trailing edge of the wings, Williams wrote. The fuselage was “splayed open with blown, packed snow inside.”
The fragmented aircraft remains perched on a hanging glacier on the north side of Thunder Mountain. The right wing came to rest several hundred feet below the main wreckage. The National Park Service last week ended efforts to recover the wreckage and the bodies inside, citing a harrowing and risky combination of steep terrain, avalanche hazard and the condition of the aircraft.