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‘Like an angel on earth’: Friends and family remember pilot Zach Russell

Russell, 33, is one of five men who died in a helicopter crash on March 27
Published: Apr. 1, 2021 at 4:10 PM AKDT|Updated: Apr. 1, 2021 at 9:40 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Zach Russell, 33, and his fiancee, Ashley Edmondson, had finally settled on a wedding date — Oct. 2 — the morning before he set off on another assignment with his dream job as a heli-ski pilot, lifting off for yet another adventure as she watched from the ground below.

A late-night call that same day delivered news to Ashley that her fiance’s helicopter had crashed.

An early morning call the following day confirmed her worst fears. Russell and four other men had died. He wasn’t coming home, ever.

“He stood by the helicopter before he took off and blew kisses like he always did,” Edmondson told Alaska’s News Source in an interview from the couple’s Anchorage home. “And then he just flew right over my head and waved back down at me. And it is the most special thing that I think could have ever happened on that morning, because I feel like I just watched him go to heaven, looking back on it now.”

Russell, two guides and three international clients were on board the March 27 flight when it collided in mountainous terrain just below a ridgeline early Saturday evening. The lone survivor remains hospitalized.

Edmondson describes Russell as a gentle, funny mountain man who loved the outdoors and had the heart of a protector. Whether friend, family or stranger, if someone needed help, Russell would step in, she said.

Russell grew up on Fire Lake in Eagle River, the son of a pilot. His family eventually moved to Oregon.

It’s there, at a chance encounter at a shooting range, that Edmondson, then 19, first met the man with sparkly blue eyes, big smile, and a lifelong love for flying. Zach dreamed of becoming a helicopter pilot and returning to Alaska.

He was born to fly, definitely, and you could tell just watching him the way he would talk about everything in his life, he was always so full of joy, but especially with flying, he got an extra sparkle in his eye,” Edmondson said. “It was part of him.”

The couple’s home is filled with reminders of Russell’s adventures, and his knack for sentiment. Edmondson said her fiance always returned home with found items for her: seashells, agates, sea glass; pieces of the places he’d been was a way to share his travels with her.

He was so excited when he came through the door to give me all his treasures,” she said.

He also whittled, often carving “I love you” into drift wood for her. One such stick sits on the couple’s kitchen table, just beneath a photo they took together about a month ago, hats pulled low and scarves pulled high to protect from the wind.

The couple explored wherever they lived, taking hikes and camping trips, and for Russell, snowmachining and hunting. From Oregon they went to Nevada, and from there on to Alaska.

Pictures Edmondson shared with Alaska’s News Source chronicle the life of a couple who spent a good portion of their 20s together, maturing and deepening their love for the outdoors and each other.

Weekend getaways were especially treasured.

“He was great at making fires. I mean, he just could, I swear, rub two sticks together and a fire would come,” Edmondson said

Childhood friend Matthew Leib said the two spent a lot of time together fishing, snowboarding and playing video games.

“Average stuff that boys will do” Leib said.

After graduating from pilot school in Oregon, Russell flew grand canyon tours with Sundance Helicopters in Nevada. After that, he flew glacier tours in Juneau, until making the leap to join Palmer-based Soloy Helicopters, a job he was thrilled to land.

Russell was also constantly advancing his skills, Leib said. At first Russell flew A-stars, smaller helicopters, then worked his way up to hoisting and towing things with short or long lines from the helicopter, Leib said. From there, the next advancement was training to be a heli-ski pilot, Leib said.

Russell and his brother, Tyler, and Leib and another friend called each other “the squad” – always up for outings no matter the weather, and a group that enjoyed weekly taco parties.

Like Edmondson, Leib said Russell had a presence that made people feel comfortable, and protected. Over dinner with the family earlier this week, Leib said he talked to Russell’s father about his friend.

“…when I would ride with his boys, Zach and Tyler, I just felt invincible, like never scared,” Leib said. “Because I knew they were there for me, and we were there for them. So, you know, and that’s what’s hard about this. We couldn’t be there for him.”

Leib said he and the family are grateful for the military and civilian teams that went to the crash site to check on those aboard, and then who took care of the bodies of Russell and the others.

Zach Russell and his childhood friend, Matthew Leib.
Zach Russell and his childhood friend, Matthew Leib.(Matthew Leib)

Now, friends and family are learning more about Russell than they ever knew, trading stories and taking comfort in the friendships he built, and the acts of kindness he gave.

“Zach was just the warmest, kindest person that anybody could have ever met,” Edmondson said. “He just radiated joy and he he made friends everywhere that he went and he was the most loyal person ever. You could trust him with anything. Zach was one in a million.”

A man of faith, Edmondson told Alaska’s News Source that Russell often took his Bible along on his trips and that he felt blessed to go so many places and see so many things.

“That was his every day he got to go beyond mountain tops or down on the beach, just beautiful trips,” she said.

As the adventures and accomplishments piled up, his dream life in Alaska with Ashley was also coming together. He proposed to her not once, but twice.

The first time was in July 2019 after a hike near the Kennecott Mines. He’d purchased a locally made copper band, and made the ask.

I had never been there before, but he’d been planning it for quite a while, I think, and made me hike up the most difficult trail I’ve ever been on in my life and puts me at the top,” Edmondson said. “The ring didn’t even fit coming down because we had hiked so far.”

She said yes. But Russell had another surprise in store, one timed for when the official engagement ring arrived.

When he proposed to me at Beluga Point, there were hundreds of beluga whales and I had only ever seen one before on a drive,” Edmondson said. “And it was just it was the most spectacular wildlife scene I’ve ever seen. And we were just laughing. And it was just really, really special. I got two proposals from him and that was just phenomenal.”

The morning Russell was readying for the March 27 flight, the couple firmed up the wedding date and agreed they’d get married in Girdwood and honeymoon in Costa Rica. Neither could have known their time together that day, would be their last.

He stood by the helicopter before he took off and kisses like he always did. And then he just flew right over my head and waved back down at me. And it is the most special thing that I think could have ever happened on that morning, because I feel like I just watched him go to heaven looking back on it now,” Edmondson said, almost in tears. She and his parents are planning a small celebration of life, as friends and relatives are arriving this week from out of town.

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