A chunk of rock jutting from Davidson Glacier may have made the difference between life and death for six people on a flightseeing tour Monday near Haines, a searcher said today.
"There was a rock, 300- to 400-foot tall, protruding from the glacier. The top part of it looked like the top part of a Y," said Tom Pauser, a U.S. Coast Guard yeoman and one of three members of the Juneau Mountain Rescue team that flew to the site shortly after the crash.
The team knew the single-engine Piper Cherokee Six hit the rock, called a nunatak, because fuel was left on its surface.
Pauser suspects poor visibility in the area contributed to the crash. "The way the fog rolls in there, you get white clouds and white snow together," he said.
If the plane had been flying only about 100 feet to the left, it might have made it over a clear space at the crest of the glacier, Pauser said. He described the scene as "pretty grim."
"We determined death was on impact," he said.
On Tuesday, Alaska State Troopers were unable to fly to the crash site at the 5,000 foot level of Davidson Glacier.
Flight conditions were not considered safe at the crash site about a dozen miles south of Haines, said Greg Wilkinson, trooper spokesman, because the cloud ceiling was at 1,600 feet. Once it is considered safe to fly, members of Juneau Mountain Rescue and the National Transportation Safety Board will travel to the site to recover bodies of the five passengers and pilot and to investigate causes of the crash.
The pilot of the Piper Cherokee Six was Chad Beer, 26, of Juneau.
"My understanding is that this was his second season (flying) here, so he was not a new pilot by any means," said Clint Johnson of the National Transportation Safety Board. "We are in the process of gathering that information (about the pilot's experience), but our main priority is to get to the crash site and to recover the bodies."
Johnson hoped to reach the site this afternoon.
The flightseeing plane, owned by LAB Flying Service, left Skagway at 2 p.m. Monday for a 90-minute tour over the east arm of Glacier Bay National Park, troopers said. When it failed to return, authorities launched a search.
LAB Flying Service was founded in 1956 and is owned by Layton Bennett, said LAB spokesman Peggy Ormasen, of LAB's Haines office. Beer, the pilot, is originally from Minnesota, she said. She did not know how familiar he was with the route he was flying Monday, but said it is one of the most popular routes LAB flies from Skagway.
Four German tourists were aboard: Helmut Auer of Baden-Wurtemberg; Uwe Kahlbohm, 59, and his wife Siegried, 65, of Bremerhaven; and Martin Federhofer of Hamburg. Their names were released this morning by the New York office of Springer News Service, a German news agency. The agency did not have the ages of Auer and Federhofer.
The fifth passenger was a Canadian, Marianne Cederberg, 55, of Toronto.
The one-hour flightseeing tour over the east arm of Glacier Bay was arranged by JonView Canada, a Toronto-based firm, and Cederberg was the tour guide for the Germans, said trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson. The tourists were part of a 19-day bus tour from Vancouver to Anchorage. The bus stopped for two nights in Whitehorse.
The Yukon Territory has worked hard in recent years to attract German tourists, said Sheila Dodd, tourism coordinator for the city of Whitehorse.
"We have been very active in the European market to the point that we have direct flights from Frankfurt, Germany, coming in on Tuesday and Thursday," Dodd said. "We also have flights from other places in German-speaking Europe such as Zurich, Switzerland. We have been trying to fill those flights."
Germans read Jack London as part of their curriculum in fifth grade and also learn about the culture of Native Yukoners.
"So they always wanted to come here," Dodd said.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at email@example.com.