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A single-engine plane, carrying six people and flying "on borrowed time" due to a spraying oil leak that covered the windshield, was guided to an emergency landing on a Kupreanof Island beach by a Coast Guard helicopter crew Tuesday afternoon.
The pilot of the L.A.B. Flying Service plane and four of his five passengers, who were flying from Kake to Petersburg, suffered minor injuries. The Coast Guard flew them to Juneau where they were treated at Bartlett Regional Hospital and released in good condition Tuesday evening.
The passengers are Mexican nationals who had been living in Kake for about two and half months, they said today from the Alaskan Hotel in downtown Juneau. A church paid for the flight to Petersburg, where the group planned to find jobs with Norquest Seafoods, passenger Pedro Nava said.
"We weren't able to find work in Kake," Nava said. "We're without money, without a living."
The Cherokee 6 airplane, piloted by Allan Tvergyak, 25, ran into trouble when the engine cover detached in flight, said Coast Guard Cmdr. James Manning, who helped guide the plane to a safe landing.
The vibration of the engine cover likely broke or knocked off the oil filler cap, which sits directly under the cowling, Manning said. The oil was sucked out of the tank and blew back against the windshield, blocking Tvergyak's view.
"He could just watch his oil pressure decreasing," Manning said. "He knew the engine was just running on borrowed time at that point."
The Sitka-based Coast Guard helicopter team received Tvergyak's distress signal at 11:52 a.m. and flew to his position about 15 miles east of Kake.
Rain squalls, low clouds and fog across the middle of Frederick Sound prevented the plane from returning to Kake. However, weather on the south end of Admiralty Island was clear, and the Coast Guard joined Tvergyak in the search for a place to land.
Two stretches of gravel beach seemed like the best options, Manning said.
"Even the best stretches of muskeg had trees in it, and he had 40 gallons of gasoline in the wings," Manning said. "The chances of ripping those tanks open on the trees and creating a fire was very real.
"We agreed on a beach and I said, 'We'll just join up on your left wing.' "
The Coast Guard guided Tvergyak down to the beach, giving him detailed instructions on direction and monitoring his altitude. Because of the oil covering his windshield, Tvergyak was forced to look out the side window of the plane.
"Imagine driving your car down the freeway at 120 miles per hour and not looking out your windshield, (but) looking out your side window trying to decide where you're going," Manning said. "I tried to work on getting him calmed down. He was a high-stress young man. He had five people counting on him, plus himself."
Even as Tvergyak landed, the overheated engine was reaching its limits.
"It looked like a movie, an airplane going around trailing a big stream of black smoke," Manning said.
To make the landing, Tvergyak had to fly low over 50- and 60-foot trees directly next to the narrow beach, then make a slight turn to line up with the curving path of the shoreline.
The beach, which appeared to be about 300 feet long from the air, was closer to 600 feet long, Manning estimated. The gravel surface slowed the plane, which tipped up onto its nose near the end of the beach and slid to a stop in about three feet of water.
The Coast Guard helicopter landed and took the passengers and pilot on board. They reached Juneau around 1:30 p.m. and were taken to Bartlett Regional Hospital for examination.
The hospital, which doesn't release patients' names, reported it treated and released a woman, 45, with a headache; a man, 54, with pain in the right shoulder; a man, 38, with bruising; a man, 25, with bruising and back pain; and a woman, 57, with muscle pain. A woman, 56, reported no injuries.
The passengers speak little English. Besides Nava, their names are Virginia Comacho, Enriqueta Reyes, Allejandro Reyes, and Melida Dias.
Nava, who has lived in the United States for more than 12 years, originally is from Michoacan, Mexico. He lived in Washington state before coming to Alaska this spring to find employment and send money to his family.
"I have my family in Mexico. Right now, I have my family," he said, recounting the group's story. "It's the American dream to work for your family ... In truth, we've suffered a lot."
Passenger Melida Dias, who showed a purple jacket covered in fuel from the accident, said she hoped the group could get on an Alaska Airlines flight to Petersburg instead of a smaller plane.
When asked if they were scared by the emergency landing, the passengers nodded their heads.
The language barrier between Tvergyak and the passengers made the landing especially tense, Manning said.
"Here (Tvergyak) was, attempting to set up a controlled landing, a forced landing, and he couldn't even brief his passengers," Manning said. "You could hear in his voice; he was starting to get excited."
The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of the incident is pending, said Alaska chief Jim La Belle.
La Belle said the NTSB had not yet confirmed that the cowling had detached. Even if confirmation is received, he said it won't necessarily warrant an investigation because the engine cover is a nonstructural element of the plane.
"There's a threshold at which we begin an investigation," La Belle said. "It typically requires serious injuries or fatalities for us to respond ... or a major air carrier."
Tvergyak, L.A.B. officials and a spokesperson from the Federal Aviation Administration were unavailable for comment by the Empire's midday deadline.
Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com. Empire reporter Tim Inkleberger contributed to this article.