Officials identify pilot, passenger who died in Denali Park plane crash

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Published: Aug. 12, 2023 at 11:11 AM AKDT|Updated: Aug. 12, 2023 at 11:15 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Officials have identified the two men that died Wednesday when their Piper PA-18 aircraft crashed in a ravine in the southwest preserve of Denali National Park and Preserve on the Yentna River.

According to National Park Service officials, the plane piloted by 45-year-old Jason Tucker of Wasilla was carrying Chugiak resident Nicolas Blace, 44, as a passenger at the time of the crash. Neither of the men survived.

Brooke Merrell, Denali National Park and Preserve’s superintendent, offered condolences to Tucker and Blace’s families.

“Our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of those involved as we work through this response,” Merrell said.

When National Park Service rangers were investigating the remote crash site, they were notified of a hunter waiting at a remote airstrip for a pilot that never showed. That hunter notified friends using a satellite communication device, who alerted authorities.

The stranded hunter was picked up by Alaska State Troopers, who learned he had been hunting with Blace and flying with Tucker. Tucker had intended to drop Blace off at an airstrip on the Dillinger River, near the park’s boundaries, and then return to pick up the second hunter. Authorities say there is no evidence Tucker and Blace ever made it to that stop, including no fresh landing tracks, and no communications from either Tucker or Blace, who carried a satellite device as well.

The approximate location of the crash in Denali National Park and Preserve.
The approximate location of the crash in Denali National Park and Preserve.

A crew from the Alaska Air National Guard Rescue Coordination Center made the first attempt to reach the crash site on Wednesday but were forced to return to its base due to weather. Another flight Thursday morning located the wreckage in a narrow ravine to the north of the Yentna River’s West Fork, but they were unable to land at the site due to the steep surrounding terrain. Upon observing the wreckage, it was determined the crash was not survivable.

By Thursday afternoon, Denali National Park rangers assessed the feasibility of recovering the plane by helicopter. It was ultimately determined that, due to the narrow width of the ravine, lack of shoreline on the Yentna River for several miles, the rapidly flowing river waters, and the dangers of loose rock lining the ravine, a recovery would not be possible — the ravine would be unable to accommodate the rotors of a helicopter and the 460-foot cable used for the lift.

An investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board accompanied Denali National Park mountaineering rangers to the site on Friday and collected images using a drone.

Teams from the NPS, NTSB, Alaska State Troopers, and Alaska Air National Guard Rescue Coordination Center coordinated in the attempt to recover the men’s bodies and their aircraft. It was determined that further assessments must be made to determine whether or not a ground operation would be able to recover the aircraft, which they called “complex and potentially high-risk”.