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Pilot says plane cartwheeled in gusty conditions

Posted: July 15, 2012 - 12:08am

ANCHORAGE — What appeared to be an uneventful flight to Homer ended in a fatal crash when the floatplane was hit by a gust of wind soon after landing and cartwheeled, filling the cabin with water, the pilot said.

Former state Rep. Cheryll Heinze, 65, died as a result of Tuesday’s crash on Beluga Lake in Homer. Four other people received minor injuries.

Joe Griffith, the general manager of Matanuska Electric Association, was piloting the plane and taking MEA employees to Homer to go on a fishing trip. He told the Anchorage Daily News that a wind gust appeared to catch the plane, lifting the left wing. The right wing tilted down and touched the water. The Cessna 206 then flipped and water flooded the cabin as Heinze was strapped inside.

While others were able to free themselves, Heinze remained strapped in her seat.

Griffith estimated that Heinze, MEA’s public affairs and human resources director, had flown as many as 500 hours with him and she had been instructed on what to do if the plane flips. For this trip, she was sitting by herself in the third row in the rear of the plane.

When the plane flipped, Griffith, who is a Vietnam veteran and former flight wing commander at Elmendorf Air Force Base, began shouting out orders.

“Seat belts!” Griffith shouted. “Get the door open!”

The murky lake water filled the cabin. One of the passengers got the door open.

“There was no air left in the airplane when I got out,” Griffith said.

Griffith said he’s unsure of the order that the passengers left the plane. By the time he got out, the airplane was full of water. He said once outside, he kept a hold of Heinze’s foot so he knew where she was still inside the plane.

He said he ducked underwater twice to see if he could get into the airplane to see her and carried a knife that he planned to use to cut her seatbelt.

Griffith found himself shaking and moving slowly, signs of hypothermia. He and one of the passengers struggled to make their way back into the submerged cabin.

“You had to hold your breath to do it,” he said.

Griffith and Zellers tried to pull Heinze free. But Griffith could not find the belt in the murky water.

The first rescuers to arrive wore dry suits and apparently used Griffith’s knife to cut Heinze free, he said. It is difficult to know how much time she spent underwater, Griffith said.

Paramedics tried to resuscitate Heinze. CPR was started and paramedics got a pulse but later her heart stopped for a second time and she could not be revived.

Griffith described the wind gust as a microburst. He said with a little more air speed and a little more time he might have been able to force the left wing down and avoid the crash.

“It was almost instantaneous,” he said. “There seemed to be no delay when that wing came up. I think it would have been difficult, no matter what, to successfully have countered whatever that gust was.”

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