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News / Nation & World

Pilot error and inadequate training were probable cause of Alaska heli-ski crash that killed 5 including Czech billionaire

By Zaz Hollander, Anchorage Daily News
Published: September 30, 2023, 5:00am

PALMER, Alaska — A new National Transportation Safety Board report on a 2021 heli-ski crash that killed five men including Czech billionaire Petr Kellner and an internationally renowned ski guide lists as the probable cause the pilot’s final decisions and lack of training.

The report, which also faults the Federal Aviation Administration, reveals that the lodge that chartered the trip was aware of the crash within about 40 minutes. But amid errors and confusion, a rescue mission wasn’t initiated for more than two hours.

The March 2021 crash of the Airbus AS350B3 in the Chugach Mountains 21 miles southeast of Palmer was among the deadliest heli-skiing aviation accidents in North American history and drew international attention. The Airbus was operated by Soloy Helicopters of Wasilla.

The crash killed 56-year-old Petr Kellner, one of the richest men in Europe, and 50-year-old French snowboarder Benjamin Larochaix; guides Gregory Harms, 52, of Colorado, and Sean McManamy, 38, of Girdwood; and 33-year-old Soloy pilot Zachary Russell of Anchorage.

One man survived: Czech snowboarder David Horvath, 48 at the time. But two others — Kellner and Harms — lived through the impact and died before rescuers arrived, according to an account Horvath has given his attorney. Kellner was found outside the helicopter, as if he had been able to move on his own for at least some time following the crash. Horvath suffered hypothermia and severe frostbite.

The National Transportation Safety Board final report released Wednesday represents the results of a major investigation that took an unusually long time — 2 1/2 years — between the crash and the publication of the 23-page document.

The official probable cause finding is Russell’s “failure to adequately respond to an encounter with whiteout conditions,” with the lack of Soloy training and competency checks as well as insufficient FAA oversight as contributing factors, according to the report. The agency also found the lack of prompt crash notification contributed to the severity of the Horvath’s injuries.

Along with those findings, investigators also learned that Harms had amphetamine and cocaine in his system at the time of the crash but were unable to determine whether the senior lead guide’s drug use played a role, according to the report.

On the day of the crash, Tordrillo Mountain Lodge had contracted with Soloy to bring the group from a rental house in Wasilla to the backcountry above the Knik River Valley. Harms’ company, Third Edge Heli, was providing guide services. The helicopter was maneuvering low over a ridgeline above the glacier as the pilot looked for a spot to put down when it crashed and tumbled about 900 feet.

The report provides numerous details not officially released before.

The lone survivor, Horvath, told investigators that before the last ski run of the day, pilot Russell attempted to land on a ridgeline but then instead lifted off for an attempted second landing, according to the new report. The survivor said that during the second attempt, the snow was “real light” but then the helicopter “became ‘engulfed in a fog which made it appear like a little white room,’” the report said.

The report, written by chief investigator Joshua Cawthra, states that description was consistent with whiteout conditions caused by rotor wash kicking up snow while the helicopter hovered.

The same conditions likely continued when Russell tried to land again, “which caused him to lose visual reference with the ridgeline and resulted in the helicopter impacting terrain,” Cawthra wrote. There were no apparent mechanical causes detected that would have “precluded normal operation of the helicopter,” the report states.

Horvath said that during the second attempt, the helicopter suddenly started going backward “real fast” and hit the ridge, then rolled backward down the mountain, according to the report.

But the Rescue Coordination Center, responsible for dispatching elite Alaska National Guard pararescuers for mountain missions, didn’t get a notification about an overdue helicopter for more than two hours after the crash. An emergency locator beacon didn’t trigger on impact.

An Alaska Army National Guard helicopter crew responded to a helicopter crash in the Chugach Mountains, near Knik Glacier, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (Alaska Mountain Rescue Group photo via Alaska State Troopers)

Along with the pilot’s actions, the newly released federal report focuses on the confusion after the crash occurred, as questions mounted about what had happened but no search was launched.

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FAA regulations for chartered aircraft required “flight-tracking” for the Soloy helicopter if it became overdue, the report states. Soloy told investigators that it had delegated that responsibility to Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, but that delegation was not documented in the company’s FAA operations specifications or general operations manual as required, it said.

The day of the crash, the lodge was providing “flight-following” for the helicopter, a different service involving monitoring the trip while it’s underway that’s not required by federal regulations governing chartered flights, the report states. Flight tracking legally occurs only once an aircraft is overdue.

After noticing the helicopter’s signal hadn’t moved for 40 minutes, the lodge’s flight follower told a supervisor “there had been ‘no positive comms’” with guide Harms for 90 minutes, NTSB investigator Cawthra wrote. “However, the remote area in which the accident flight was operating had limited communication capabilities, and no clear evidence indicated that an accident had occurred.”

The supervisor reached out to another heli-ski company to help determine the Soloy ship’s status, the report states. Then they told the flight follower to monitor the Soloy helicopter.

But the lodge’s emergency response plan “stated that a search and rescue facility should be contacted ‘if communication with the helicopter is not established by the end of the prearranged [time] or 30-minute grace period,’” Cawthra wrote. “Therefore, it would have been reasonable for the lodge to activate its emergency response plan at this point given that the helicopter’s location was unknown at the time.”

The follower kept trying to reach the helicopter without success, the report states. But about 90 minutes after the last signal it sent, the lodge got inaccurate information from the second heli-ski company that the Soloy ship was “inbound” for Wasilla, it states. “This incorrect information likely played a role in the lodge’s further delay in activating its emergency response plan.”

Soloy learned, from the second heli-ski operator, about the overdue helicopter about 1 hour and 50 minutes after the crash, according to the report. The lodge told Soloy five minutes later that it was activating its emergency response plan, which occurred roughly two hours after the crash, it said.

Soloy notified the Rescue Coordination Center about 2 hours and 17 minutes after the crash, according to the report.

The NTSB investigators cited deficiencies in Soloy’s training of pilot Russell in areas such as relying on instruments rather than sight to fly, and flying near ridgelines.

Especially when it came to using instruments to fly when conditions suddenly changed, “it is likely that the pilot did not meet the qualification standards to be the pilot-in-command of the accident flight,” Cawthra wrote.

The FAA’s principal operations inspector also failed to make sure that Soloy’s operations specifications included federally required information including flight-locating specifics.