Helicopter crashes on glacier

Passengers, pilot escape with minor injuries; poor visibility investigated as a probable cause

Posted: Friday, June 02, 2006

Poor visibility is believed to have caused a Bell 206 helicopter to crash on the Mendenhall Glacier on Wednesday evening, officials said.

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All six passengers and the pilot are safe, but the helicopter sustained "significant damage," authorities said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Coastal Helicopters crash, which happened at about 6:20 p.m. Wednesday during a sightseeing flight.

Jim LaBelle, Alaska regional director of NTSB, said preliminary reports indicate the pilot became disorientated because of the weather.

"From what I understand, it is what we refer to as whiteout and flat-light conditions," he said. Pilots can't perceive depth under flat-light conditions because snow, clouds and sometimes rain blend into the background and become indistinguishable from the landscape.

"Basically the rotors hit the side of the glacier," he said. "He had been communicating with another helicopter and looking for the other helicopter ... and in the process he was turning the helicopter and that is probably when it descended and collided with the glacier."

The pilot is experienced, Coastal Helicopters President Jim Wilson said.

"This was his second season working for us and he's been a pilot for 35 years," he said.

Wilson said the company is working to salvage the helicopter.

"We're just not sure how bad right now," he said. "We're in the process of recovery and getting it down right now so we can analyze it."

Wilson said the company will dismantle the helicopter and bring it back to town.

"It had an insured value of about $600,000," he said.

LaBelle said there were no serious injuries resulting from the crash.

"I know they all got off safely and there were three minor injuries, and four were reported with no injuries," he said.

"We're fortunate that there were no serious injuries and we're able to continue to do business," Wilson said.

One of the company's helicopters crashed on the Mendenhall Glacier almost exactly seven years ago, killing six passengers and the pilot.

Wilson said his company has a good safety record. He said any mode of transportation has risks, including driving an automobile.

"If you consider the number of hours we've flown and the number of passengers we've moved since we've done business here, it's probably as safe a mode of transportation as any," he said.

The company averages about 25 to 30 flights a day during the summer, with a high percentage being "industrial work" for business such as mining companies, construction companies or power companies, Wilson said. He said Coastal averages 8 to 10 sightseeing flights for tourists each day during the summer.

Joette Storm, community relations manager for Federal Aviation Administration Alaska Region, said the government has been working with the cruise-ship industry and a number of businesses on a Circle of Safety program, to educate consumers about the risks of flying.

"We encourage passengers, if the weather is not good, to talk to the pilot - not to insist on flying because they paid for it," she said.

Storm said neither passengers nor pilots should ever feel pressured to fly if the weather has turned sour.

"We try to remind people that they are part of the circle of safety too," she said.

LaBelle said flying in Alaska has become safer in recent years because of a number of independent and government programs.

"The accident numbers have decreased over the last five or six years, particularly in the commercial arena," he said.

LaBelle said it will take about six months to complete an official accident report on Wednesday's crash.

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