A National Transportation Safety Board report released Thursday shows that weather was deteriorating in the hours before a floatplane crash that killed six people in Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan last August.
The Southeast Aviation sightseeing plane crashed against a steep, densely forested mountainside about 18 miles from Ketchikan.
A passenger on an earlier flight described the pilot, Rolf Lanzendorfer, “ducking” under clouds during their trip. The report also says that the pilot advised the owner of the airline to cancel that day’s trip to Hyder. The owner is quoted as saying “he didn’t have the ceiling back there for it.”
But Lanzendorfer said the weather at that moment was good. The plane took off with five passengers aboard, all guests on a Holland America Line ship calling on Ketchikan that day.
Tracking devices from the plane showed a landing on a nearby lake around 10:30 a.m., less than 20 minutes before the crash. Lanzendorfer then took off in the direction of Ketchikan, flying near the Behm Canal. Visibility was low. Photos taken by passengers show thick clouds throughout the area.
An AIRMET Sierra weather advisory was in place when the crash happened, meaning visibility was poor. A Sierra advisory means there is “extensive mountain obscuration” and visibility of three miles or less for more than 50% of the advisory’s time window.
Other pilots who had been flying that morning reported low clouds in the area. Conditions were similar at weather cameras in Ketchikan, as well as on Minx and Twin islands.
Emergency signals reached responders at 10:50 a.m. The wreckage was found by 11:20 a.m., with no survivors.
The transportation safety board reported that the crash was at 1,750 feet above sea level. That’s where part of the left wing was found — the other part of the wing was found in a tree along the debris path, where other pieces also were scattered.
The new report also details the pilot’s autopsy, which turned up no evidence of alcohol, drugs or carbon monoxide poisoning. His cause of death was listed as blunt force injuries. Lanzendorfer had not indicated taking any medications on his most current paperwork.
The pilot was involved in an accident the month before the fatal crash. He hit a buoy and flipped over near Prince of Wales Island, damaging the plane. There was no formal discipline or additional training from Southeast Aviation after the incident.
Families of four of the passengers are suing Holland America and Southeast Aviation. The lawsuit against the cruise line argues that it didn’t do enough to warn guests about the risks of the tours. The suit against the tour company alleges that it didn’t properly vet the pilot before allowing him back after the July accident.