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Story last updated at 5:11 PM on Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pilot, passengers walk away from Nanwalek plane crash


A Smokey Bay Air pilot and his three passengers survived a belly-down landing in chilly waters off Nanwalek last Thursday afternoon while taking off from one of Alaska's more notorious airports. After landing about 75 feet from the shore, the pilot helped his three passengers get onto the wing of the Cessna 206 airplane. When the plane started to sink in about 15 feet of water, all four swam and then walked to shore.

Nanwalek villagers, including some who waded into the water, helped the victims make it to safety. The victims were checked at the Nanwalek health clinic and reported no injuries.

Villagers also reported the crash, as did the pilot.

"Smokey Bay is exceedingly grateful to the people of Nanwalek and English Bay and the way the community has helped and assisted us in this time of need," said Paul Andrew Lawrence, chief pilot for Smokey Bay Air. "We have only gratitude to them to express for what they have done for us."

Lawrence did not release the names of the pilot or passengers.

The crash happened about 3:30 p.m. Dec. 15 as the Cessna 206 took off from Nanwalek heading north over the village and toward the head of English Bay. As the pilot turned the plane over water, the plane hit a downdraft that pushed the plane toward the ocean. The pilot kept the plane upright, said Chris Shaver, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, Anchorage.

"That's very lucky. They typically go nose over," Shaver said. "They were fortunate they were able to exit the airplane."

Lawrence credited his pilot for making a survivable water landing.

"The main factor is the pilot's skill in ditching the airplane," Lawrence said. "In the process of ditching the airplane, we're lucky it did not flip over on its back."

The Cessna 206 had inflatable personal floatation devices similar to what are used on commercial jet aircraft, but the pilot and passengers did not have time to put them on, Lawrence said.

Nanwalek doesn't have a National Weather Service weather station, but the Homer weather station reported winds out of the east at about 13 to 17 mph, Shaver said.

The Nanwalek Airport is notorious among pilots, with the village at the north of the runway, a 677-foot hill to the south and frequent gusts coming from the east. NTSB investigations into numerous incidents at the airport have cited high winds or crosswinds as a contributing factor. A fatal crash in July 2003 that killed a Smokey Bay Air pilot delivering mail was caused when a Cessna 206 got caught in a crosswind after an aborted landing from the north.

The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities plans to replace the Nanwalek and Port Graham airports with a single, shared airport between the two lower Cook Inlet villages, with connecting roads. Funding of $34 million for the project has been approved, said Rick Feller, legislative and media liaison. DOT&PF is currently working on the Nanwalek Airport environmental assessment, to be completed by next summer. Once the Federal Aviation Administration approves the environmental assessment, the state would start right-of-way and land acquisition, about a three to five year process. Construction would take another two years after that.

The troublesome Nanwalek strip is one of the issues the NTSB will look into in its investigation, Shaver said.

"The surrounding topography will more likely be a factor in this one," he said. "It's close to the mountains. You get a lot of turbulence, a lot of downdrafts."

An NTSB team investigated the crash this week. A preliminary report will be released within five days, and a finding of probable cause within a year.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Rescue Coordination Center were notified of the crash, but were not needed, Lawrence said.

"The greatest phone call you can make is when you call the Coast Guard and search and rescue center and say 'Our pilots and passenger swam and walked ashore and are not in need of recovery,'" Lawrence said. "That call is the sweetest one for a chief pilot to make. It's a good day."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.