Pilot was shuttling passenger to remote Alaska sheep hunting area at time of fatal crash, NTSB says

an airplane crash site, with the plane circled in red at the bottom of a steep ravine
The accident site location, with the airplane circled in red. (National Transportation Safety Board)

The National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report Monday on the plane that went down earlier this month in a steep ravine in Denali National Park and Preserve, killing the pilot and passenger.

“Today’s preliminary report does give a little more detail to the circumstances that led up to this tragic accident,” said NTSB Alaska Region Chief Clint Johnson.

Johnson said the report doesn’t include information about why the Piper PA-18 Super Cub crashed, because park rangers say it’s too dangerous to attempt to descend into the steep ravine to recover the victims and enable investigators to examine the wreckage.

“We’re obviously at a disadvantage not being able to see and lay hands on the wreckage itself,” Johnson said.

The report says the pilot, 45-year-old Jason Tucker of Wasilla, was operating the Super Cub for Willow Creek Aviation on a chartered fight to take two hunters to a sheep hunting area near the Dillinger River, just west of the preserve.

“Two or three days before the accident, they departed Big Lake in the operator’s Cessna 206,” said Johnson. “They flew over the proposed hunting area, and then they returned back to Big Lake.”

Johnson said on the morning of Aug. 9, Tucker and the two hunters all flew out of Big Lake in the Cessna to Donkey Creek, about 15 miles south of the park near the Yentna River. They dropped off their supplies and equipment there.    

“The pilot then returned back to Big Lake, picked up the PA-18, and the intent was to shuttle each one of the hunters and their gear into the hunting area using a smaller airplane,” Johnson said.

He said the crash occurred on the first leg of that return trip. The report says Tucker and 44-year-old Nicolas Blace of Chugiak both died of injuries they sustained. An Alaska National Guard Rescue Coordination Center helicopter crew located the wreckage the next day at the foot of the ravine, in the southwest corner of the preserve. Later that day, Alaska State Troopers rescued the stranded second hunter, who’s not identified in the report. Johnson said the hunter told investigators about their plans and other information. But Johnson said they still have a lot of other gaps to fill.

“We still have a ways to go,” he said. “But there’s a lot of other things that we can do in the meantime.”

He said that includes further examining video of the crash site shot by an NTSB drone, and collecting more weather data to show conditions in the area at the time of the crash. He said the agency also is now asking other pilots for information.

“Somebody that was in the area on that day, August 9th, right around 12 o’clock, 12:15, that may have been flying in the area that can give us a little better idea as far as weather conditions,” he said.

Johnson said a final report on the wreck likely won’t be completed until next August.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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