Six Killed in Alaska Floatplane Collision

Six people died on May 13, 2019, in a collision between two floatplanes in Alaska that has safety experts cautioning passengers about small aircraft. Alaska has been the site of three fatal small plane crashes in just over one week, in addition to several across the US in recent months, highlighting the many safety issues concerning small planes. Experts say the problem lies in having fewer regulations over smaller, privately owned aircraft compared with commercial airlines.

Floatplanes Carrying Tourists 

Both floatplanes involved in the collision carried tourists from a Princess Cruises ship on a stopover in Ketchikan, Alaska. One of the companies offered an excursion sold through Princess Cruises, while the other was independently provided. The tourists were being taken to Ketchikan from the Misty Fjords National Monument area at around 12:21 pm local time when the two small planes—both float-equipped—collided at approximately 3,350 feet.
In all, six people died and another nine were injured in the collision, which involved a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver operated by Mountain Air Service, and a de Havilland DHC-3 Otter operated by Taquan Air. All five people on the DHC-2 Beaver died, while one person on the DHC-3 Otter died and the other nine suffered serious injuries. The pilot on the Otter survived with minor injuries. His plane had flight-tracking equipment, and he told investigators he saw nothing that indicated air traffic was nearby when he maneuvered the airplane so passengers could see a waterfall.

Tourist airplanes should all be equipped with devices, known as ADS-B, that allow each pilot to know where other airplanes are in his vicinity so that each can avoid the other. The Otter’s pilot reports he had, and checked, such a system and saw no conflict. If that is correct, the question must be asked whether the Beaver had a functioning ADS-B on board, because both must be on and functioning for the pilots to know about each other’s whereabouts.

"Just prior to the collision, [the pilot] saw a flash from his left side, and experienced a large, loud impact," the National Transportation Safety Board notes in its preliminary report.

At that point, the planes collided, and the Otter rolled to the right and pitched down toward the water. The pilot was able to keep some control of the aircraft prior to impact, and passengers evacuated from the water. The Beaver, however, broke apart immediately on collision, sending debris into the water and mountainous terrain below. The NTSB notes that the debris field was about 2,000 feet long by approximately 1,000 feet wide, while an examination of the Beaver wreckage showed mechanical cuts along the right wing, consistent with being hit by propeller blades.

Officials Identify Victims 

Randy Sullivan (pilot), 46, from Ketchikan, Alaska
Louis Botha, 46, from San Diego, California
Simon Bodie, 56, from Tempe, Australia
Cassandra Webb, 62, from St. Louis, Missouri
Elsa Wilk, 37, from Richmond, Canada
Ryan Wilk, 39, from Utah

All passengers were from the same cruise ship, the Royal Princess, which left Vancouver, British Columbia, on May 11. Initial reports indicated four people died and two were missing, though officials later recovered the bodies of the two missing individuals after a search involving more than 50 Coast Guard members.

Many injured individuals were taken to PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical, while some were taken to Seattle.

Randy Sullivan, the DHC-2 pilot, owned and operated Mountain Air Service, which specializes in tours of Misty Fjords. He grew up in Ketchikan and spoke to the Los Angeles Times in 2015 about the risks of flying in Alaska, where weather can be problematic, saying the danger is always on people's minds.

Three Fatal Floatplane Crashes in Eight Days 

The collision between the de Havilland planes was the first of three fatal plane crashes in Alaska in only eight days.

On May 20, two people died when a de Havilland Beaver operated by Taquan Air crashed into Metlakatla Harbor at around 4:00 pm. Taquan Air voluntarily suspended operations following the accident. Killed in that crash were the pilot, Ron Rash, and Sarah Luna, an epidemiologist.

On May 21, a man died when the small plane he was in crashed into Prince William Sound.

Small Planes Have Fewer Regulations 

Experts say smaller planes are not subject to the same level of regulation as larger commercial aircraft, which results in a higher risk of accidents. The Ketchikan collision involved what regulators call a "general aviation" flight—those that are not commercial airline flights. General aviation flights do not require pilots to have the same level of training or flight-readiness as commercial flights. The planes may also not have extra engines, backup systems, or even co-pilots. In addition, general aviation planes are not required to provide flight paths for their trips.

 Furthermore, the smaller planes are not required to have crashworthy flight data systems or cockpit voice recorders, making it potentially more difficult to determine what caused the crash.

The NTSB is continuing the investigation into the Alaska floatplane collision, though a full report could take a year. Reports indicate weather conditions in the area at the time of the crash were overcast. Neither plane was under air traffic control.

Following both the Ketchikan and the Metlakatla Harbor crashes, the NTSB renewed its calls for greater safety regulations regarding charter flights. The safety measures the NTSB recommends include having charter airlines implement safety management systems, requiring flight data be recorded for analysis, and ensuring adequate training for pilots.

"A customer who pays for a ticket should trust that the operator is using the industry's best practices when it comes to safety," said NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt in a statement. "It shouldn't matter if the operator has one airplane or 100. Travelers should have an equivalent level of safety, regardless of the nature of the flight for which they paid."