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The pilot of a trailing LAB Flying Service plane expressed concerns about the weather and altered his route during a flightseeing excursion on Monday, but the pilot of the lead plane "said he was going to proceed" minutes before crashing, a federal accident investigator said today.
The crash of one of the two identical single-engine Piper Cherokee Sixes killed the pilot and five passengers.
"These planes took off (from Skagway) as part of a flight of two - one in trail of the other," said Clint Johnson, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board's Anchorage office. "The accident plane climbed up the glacier. The pilots were conversing back and forth about the weather. The first said he was going to proceed. The second said he wasn't comfortable with that and went another route and returned safely."
The pilot of the plane that crashed was identified as Chad Beer, 26, of Juneau. Johnson did not reveal the name of the second pilot, nor did the Skagway office of LAB.
"I am trying to get a written statement from him," Johnson said. "It was my understanding from talking to members of the company that (Beer) had two seasons of flying in Alaska, while the second pilot had one season."
Johnson said he did not yet have specifics of the weather conditions that led the less-experienced pilot to change his route.
Meanwhile, Johnson and others were able to reach the crash site about 12 miles south of Haines on Wednesday afternoon. However, the Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter with investigators and rescue team members aboard broke down and had to be left overnight.
The helicopter took off from Juneau on Wednesday carrying Johnson, three members of the Juneau Mountain Rescue team and one representative of the Federal Aviation Administration. Their mission was to recover bodies from the site and investigate crash causes, said Alaska State Trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson.
The flightseeing plane, on a tour over the east side of Glacier Bay National Park, apparently hit a rock at the 5,000-foot level near the crest of Davidson Glacier, said Mountain Rescue Team member Tom Pauser who visited the scene Monday evening.
Poor weather in the area prevented retrieval of the bodies Tuesday.
The plan on Wednesday was to take the bodies of the five passengers to the Alaska Memorial Park mortuary in Juneau, and transfer the body of Beer to the state medical examiner's office in Anchorage for an autopsy. However, the helicopter broke down on the glacier.
Weather was good, Johnson said. "We were able to complete our on-scene (investigation) by 6:30" and locate and secure all six bodies.
Today's plan was to return to the site with National Guard maintenance personnel and the engine part needed by the helicopter, he said, and to attempt again to bring down the bodies of the four German tourists, their Canadian guide, and the pilot. Wilkinson expected this mission to be completed by noon.
Johnson had no comment about his on-site investigation of the causes of the crash. Final reports on aircraft accidents involving fatalities may require a year or more to complete.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.