NTSB releases preliminary on deadly helicopter crash near Knik Glacier

Investigators used GPS data to chronicle the flight’s final moments
The NTSB believes the helicopter impacted terrain about 15 to 20 feet below the top of a...
The NTSB believes the helicopter impacted terrain about 15 to 20 feet below the top of a ridgeline. They add that debris from the crash fell about 900 ft downslope from the top of the ridgeline.(National Transportation Safety Board)
Published: Apr. 13, 2021 at 11:33 AM AKDT|Updated: Apr. 13, 2021 at 8:07 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The National Transportation Safety Board has released the preliminary report for the helicopter crash that killed five people near Knik Glacier late last month. The report, a factual synopsis of known events and weather conditions the day of the crash, draws no conclusions about what caused the helicopter to collide with a mountain ridgeline.

“Who, what, when, where is basically what the prelim is,” Clinton Johnson, regional chief for the NTSB in Alaska told Alaska’s News Source Tuesday. “(It) doesn’t draw any conclusions. Just again — tightens up the timeline. It’s kind of the the facts that led up to this tragic accident.”

Pilot Zach Russell, guides Sean McManamy and Greg Harms, and international clients Petr Kellner and Benjamin Larochaix died in the March 27 crash. As loved ones deal with the sudden loss, investigators have kept their attention on mapping the flight’s movements.

An onboard GPS unit shows the flight left the Wasilla Airport at 2:40 p.m., picked up passengers at a nearby lake, then headed to the slopes. By 6:33 p.m. that evening, the flight was tracked hovering at a slow speed and low altitude.

“Keep in mind that this helicopter is being used to transport the skiers from the bottom of the hill, obviously, to the top of the hill and then multiple runs up and down,” Johnson said. “So basically what we’re looking at here are the final stages of the flight, most likely during the approach sequence into one of these ridge lines or into a landing area to drop the skiers off.”

Three minutes later, the GPS tracking stops near where the wreckage came to rest.

The NTSB wrote in the report that the company operating the Airbus Helicopters AS350-B3 was contracted by a local lodge to take passengers from a private residence on Wasilla Lake in Wasilla to the Chugach Mountain Range for heli-ski operations.

At the time of its final movements, the NTSB preliminary report states the helicopter began to move over a ridgeline at an elevation of 6,266 feet, traveling at a groundspeed of about one knot — which is approximately 1 mph.

The report states that a representative from the operator said the helicopter was due to return to its base at 8 p.m. When it didn’t return, they initiated their company procedures for an overdue aircraft. The wreckage was located by helicopter at about 9:30 p.m.

The NTSB believes the helicopter impacted terrain about 15 to 20 feet below the top of a ridgeline. They add that debris from the crash fell about 900 feet downslope from the top of the ridgeline.

The weather was clear with light winds, but Johnson said that meteorological data comes from Palmer, more than 20 miles from where the group was recreating, and may not represent the weather conditions encountered during the flight.

“Actually, at the site, we don’t actually have anybody that’s able to give us any real good data as far as what the weather was doing there. Twenty one miles is a long ways away,” Johnson said.

RELATED: NTSB has spoken to lone helicopter crash survivor; preliminary report to be released next week

According to international media, the lone survivor, 48-year-old Czech Republic resident David Horvath, told a colleague of Kellner’s that there was no sign of a technical failure, and that instead, weather and landing conditions may have played a role.

Johnson declined to say whether Horvath shared similar information with investigators, saying NTSB policy is to not release that information until the final report comes out.

Vladimir Mlynar, the same colleague who spoke with Horvath, posted on Twitter an image from Kellner’s funeral. The image shows a large black and white portrait of Kellner, with his moss-draped coffin in the background. In the post, Mlynar thanked everyone who helped share positive memories of Kellner.

Johnson said it could take up to a year to determine more precisely what happened, and why.

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