Pilot's remains recovered

Searchers sift through crash wreckage

Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Authorities today recovered the body of a Skagway Air pilot whose plane crashed Tuesday morning near Haines.

The body is being flown to Haines for identification, authorities said.

Joel Mathis, 39, of Skagway, was killed when the Skagway Air Service Piper PA-32 he was piloting crashed into a mountainside near Taiya Inlet 12 miles southwest of Skagway and two miles north of Haines. Mathis was flying alone from Skagway to Haines to pick up two passengers and take them to Juneau.

Because of the steep mountainous terrain of the area and stormy weather Tuesday, the Skagway Mountain Search and Rescue team was unable to recover the body and wreckage from the plane.

Alaska State Troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson said the team arrived by boat in the area around 9 a.m. today and began looking for a way to hike to the crash site.

National Transportation Safety Board officials said they are standing by to see if the recovery team can recover any of the wreckage.

"It's too early to tell if weather was a factor in this crash," said NTSB air investigator Scott Erickson. "Certainly the pilots out in that area are very familiar with the weather and terrain out there."

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Joette Storm said it will investigate the crash to see if any regulations were violated such as flying in dangerous weather or pilot error.

Mike O'Daniel, vice president of Skagway Air Service, released a statement about the crash.

According to O'Daniel, Mathis was flying a Piper Cherokee Six on Flight 1894 from Skagway to Haines at 8:10 a.m. The flight was scheduled for 8 a.m., but was delayed because of weather.

"The flight had been held about 10 minutes for weather to clear down Taiya Inlet," O'Daniel said. "We had driven down to ore terminal area and from there it looked good to Taiya Point."

According to a trooper press release, the weather was overcast at 600 feet with three miles of visibility, snow pellets and fog.

O'Daniel's statement said that Mathis in flight radioed the company's Haines office from Paradise Valley, an area three miles south of Skagway. He said he was inbound at 8:15 a.m.

At 8:30 a.m. the Haines office radioed the Skagway office saying the plane had not arrived. At 8:50 a.m. O'Daniel launched a plane carrying himself and a mechanic.

"En route, I asked FAA flight service to confirm flight plan it had been filed for Juneau and flight service said it had picked up an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) in the Haines area," he said.

"We flew from Taiya Point area and picked up the ELT. The signal was strong so I knew it wasn't in the water," O'Daniel said. "But we couldn't fly the areas we needed to fly - a lot of bays."

The FAA, the Coast Guard, TEMSCO Helicopters, Skagway Search and Rescue, troopers in Haines and Haines Search and Rescue were alerted. The trooper went with the TEMSCO pilot around the Lutak Inlet and Taiyasanka Harbor.

"At about 10:30 a.m. we narrowed the ELT signal to between two ridges between Low Point and Sawmill Falls on the east side of Taiya Inlet and the crash site was about 200 to 300 feet above the water," O'Daniel said. "We could not set down, and returned to Skagway."

A Coast Guard helicopter brought members of the Skagway Mountain Search and Rescue team to the area midday Tuesday, but they could not recover the body.

Skagway Fire Chief Martin Beckner described the crash area as "a lot of severe angles, a lot of slope, rocky and mountainous, with a lot of trees."

O'Daniel said Mathis, a native of New Mexico, was "a good company family member," who liked to talk to tourists from his bench in front of the company's offices. O'Daniel said he was as good in the air as he was on the ground.

"He was the perfect small company employee, always willing to help with anything at the hangar or around the office," O'Daniel said in statement today. "He made really good decisions in the air. We never had any complaints about him.

"He was easy to talk to," O'Daniel said. "He wasn't just an employee, he was part of the company family."

Melanie Plenda can be reached at mplenda@juneauempire.com.

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