A preliminary report released by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board today would appear to indicate that a group of skiers and snowboarders who died in a late March helicopter crash in the Chugach Mountains were hoping to get in one last run before ending their day of adventure.
Among the five dead was financier Petr Kellner, reported to be the richest man in the Czech Republic.
The NTSB report, which is short and draws no conclusions, puts the group about an hour and 20 minutes away from the helicopter’s home base when the aircraft went down shortly after 6:30 p.m. on March 27.
It was due back at the Wasilla Airport at 8 p.m.
Media in the Czech Republic have for days been reporting the lone survivor of the crash blamed the accident on swirling winds while the helicopter was trying to land on a 6,000-foot ridgetop.
The website along with other Czech media quoted Vladimír Mlynář, a spokesman for the PPF Group, telling Czech Radio that “from the way we talked to David Horváth, I can only say that there is no sign of a technical failure. That it was really an interplay of some unfortunate accidents, weather conditions, landing conditions.”
PPF is an investment firm founded by Kellner. It made him a billionairre who could afford to jet arond the world to pursue his passion for snowboarding.
His wealth, however, offered no protectoin when the $2.5 million, five-passenger Airbus AS350 B3 owned by Soloy Helicopter in Wasilla struck a mountainside near the Knik Glacier and tumbled 900 feet to the valley below..
Low and slow
The aircraft’s flight data recorder, according to the NTSB report, “showed that the helicopter’s final movements began about 1833 (6:33 p.m.) over a ridgeline at 6,266 feet….The helicopter maintained a low altitude and ground speed as it maneuvered over the ridgeline for the next few minutes.”
It was about 14 feet above the ridge doing less than 2 mph for almost four minutes, the report said. Veteran heliskiers said this is the speed and elevation that would be expected when a heli-ski pilot is looking for a good place to land to offload skiers.
At the controls, 33-three-year-old Zach Russell, who grew up in Alaska dreaming of being a professional pilot, was looking at a schedule that gave him just enough time to drop the skiers and snowboarders, return to near the base of the ridgeline to await their descent, load everyone up, fly them back to the Wasilla Lake home where they were staying, and then make it back to the airport on schedule.
What exactly happened to tragically end the flight remains an unknown. There is at this point only Horváth’s speculation, but there is nothing in the NTSB report to contradict his reported observations that the helicopter was trying to land in gusty weather.
A final NTSB report on the accident will take months.
Mechanical issues have not been ruled out. Weather in the area at the time of the crash is something of an unknown. The NTSB report shows the nearest weather station reporting winds of about 6 mph and clear skies at the time of the crash, but it is approximately 25 miles from where the helicopter went down and about 6,000 feet lower.
The weather higher in the Chugach could have been considerably different.
“The air vortices between the individual valleys are so strong that they do wild things with the machine, the helicopter,” Echo24.cz reported PPF’s Mlynář saying. “And it’s very dangerous, so just like that it can happen.”
The NTSB report said the helicopter collided with the mountainside an estimated 15 to 20 feet below the ridgeline before tumbling to the valley below.
Russell died along with Kellner; 50-year-old Benjamin Larochaix, a French coach for a snowboard team sponsored by the PPF Group; and two guides – 52-year-old Greg Harms from Aspen, Colo, and 38-year-old Sean McManamy from Girdwood, Alaska
Harms was the chief guide for Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, which had organized the ski and snowboard adventure. The Aspen Times reported Harms “had survived a helicopter crash earlier in his career as a heli-guide. He knew the risks and was comfortable with them. Unfortunately, he left behind a partner and their 2-month-old daughter.”
Originally from New Hampshire, McManamy was a graduate of the outdoor studies program at Alaska Pacific University who went to work as a guide for Mountain Trip in 2007 and rose through the company hierarchy to become its Alaska operations manager.
He guided more than 15 trips on Mount Denali and spent his winters working for Chugach Powder Guides and as an instructor at the Alaska Avalanche School.
“Sean was one of those people that always made everyone feel welcome, and could light up any room (or Denali cook tent) no matter the situation,” his old colleagues at Mountain Trip wrote on the company Facebook page.