Federal investigators outline circumstances of fatal August 2021 Misty Fjords crash

A view from a plane of steep slopes, with poor visibility
This photo shot from the left side of the plane showing a portion of Ella Lake is timestamped 10:47 a.m., three minutes before the crash. (NTSB)

Federal investigators released documents on Tuesday outlining the circumstances around a fatal sightseeing plane crash last summer in Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness near Ketchikan. The Southeast Aviation floatplane pilot and five tourists who had arrived by cruise ship were killed.

Investigators haven’t pointed to a cause for the August 2021 crash yet, says National Transportation Safety Board Alaska region chief Clint Johnson.

“This is not the final report by any stretch of the imagination,” Johnson said. “You have to keep in mind that this is a major investigation, so there’s a number of disciplines involved. Typically, for a major investigation, our policy is to open that public docket before the final report comes out.”

Among the hundreds of pages of reports, interviews, photos and data are observations about the weather.

Pilots who flew through the area shortly before and after told investigators that clouds were as low as 600 to 800 feet above the ground in some valleys. That includes where the DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver crashed southwest of Mirror Lake.

A map showing a flightseeing plane's path through Misty Fjords and the point where it crashed.
This graphic released by the NTSB shows the flight path of the Southeast Aviation flight. (NTSB)

In interviews with investigators, peers and superiors described 64-year-old pilot Rolf Lanzendorfer as a careful, safety-conscious airman who was not afraid to call off a flight for bad weather. He was an experienced pilot with roughly 8,000 hours flying similar aircraft. He had flown seasonally for Southeast Aviation since 2015.

Federal investigators note that Lanzendorfer was involved in another floatplane accident just under a month before the fatal Misty Fjords crash. In July 2021, the pilot struck a 1,500-pound buoy while departing from Coffman Cove on Prince of Wales Island.

A Federal Aviation Administration investigation found that Lanzdendorfer “acted carelessly” and skipped preflight checks for obstacles in a rush to return to Ketchikan for another flight. Lanzendorfer was the only occupant at the time and was uninjured in the accident.

He returned to work about a week before his final flight. Investigators found no record of any additional training before he resumed flying.

A report included in the documents says the plane didn’t seem to have any mechanical trouble before the Misty Fjords crash.

A yellow floatplane tied to a dock
The Southeast Aviation plane involved in the August 5, 2021 accident is shown on this photo recovered from an iPhone found in the wreckage. (NTSB)

The NTSB’s Johnson says federal crash investigators are still working on determining the cause and issuing safety recommendations.

“And we are anticipating hopefully, that this accident investigation will be done and published, hopefully by mid summer,” Johnson said.

Southeast Aviation is a small, family-run carrier that until last year operated sightseeing and charter flights. It suspended operations shortly after the crash and has yet to reopen.

“We continue to think of and grieve with the families of those lost in the heartbreaking flight incident last August and are grateful for the ongoing support of the Ketchikan community. We will continue to cooperate with the National Transportation Safety Board and other agencies involved in the tragic incident,” Southeast Aviation said in a statement.

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