‘Inadequate’ pilot training largely blamed for deadly 2021 helicopter crash that killed 5, including Czech billionaire
PALMER, Alaska (KTUU) - A final report on the March 2021 heli-skiing crash that killed five people and severely injured another placed blame largely on the “inadequate” pilot training program by the heli-ski company, as well as insufficient oversight checks by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We are at this point right now centering in on the pilot’s loss of visual reference,” said Clint Johnson, the Alaska Region Chief with the National Transportation Safety Board. “Which ultimately led to the collision with the terrain and then the machine rolling downhill from there.”
The five who died included two Alaskan residents — 38-year-old Girdwood resident Sean McManamy and 33-year-old Anchorage resident Zachary Russell, who was the pilot of the craft — as well as 52-year-old Colorado heli-skiing guide Gregory Harms, 50-year-old Czech Republic resident Benjamin Larochaix, and 56-year-old Czech Republic resident Petr Kellner, the wealthiest man in the country with an estimated net worth of $17.5 billion at the time of his death.
A third Czech resident, David Horvath, who was 48 at the time of the crash, was on board and survived the crash. Larochaix, Horvath, and Kellner were all international clients.
The final report by the NTSB was released Wednesday and stated that Horvath told investigators that the helicopter, being piloted by Russell, flew the group from a private residence on Wasilla Lake to an area for a day of skiing on March 27, 2021.
The report says Russell attempted to land on a ridgeline above Knik Glacier at around 6,200 feet altitude for the last run of the day around 6:30 p.m.
According to Horvath’s account, the helicopter picked up altitude to attempt a landing on the ridgeline when it kicked up what Horvath described as “real light” snow, creating a blizzard of snow that investigators say temporarily blinded the pilot in whiteout conditions.
Horvath said that another passenger yelled “don’t do it” three times before the craft quickly pitched backward and “impacted the rocky mountainside several times.” The report states that the helicopter did not suffer any mechanical failures or other issues prior to the incident.
The report states that after colliding with the ridgeline, the helicopter crashed down the side of the mountain for roughly 900 feet before coming to rest on flatter ground.
“The whiteout conditions that the pilot likely encountered ... is a peril that helicopter pilots up here on the North Slope or in a wintry environment encounter all the time,” Johnson. “But it is one of the perils, one of those risks that need to be mitigated.”
The final report said that Russell apparently did not have the required training checks for navigating through whiteout conditions and that the helicopter company — Soloy Helicopters LLC — did not provide the appropriate pilot training program and necessary checks to comply with regulations.
Additionally, the report states that the person responsible for making sure that the operator was adequately trained — the FAA’s principal operations inspector — approved the flight plan despite the shortcomings of Soloy’s pilot checks.
The NTSB report also stated that the rescue operation was initially delayed due to checks in Tordrillo Mountain Lodge’s emergency response plan that went unheeded.
According to the report, Soloy delegated “flight-locating” responsibility to the lodge, but it was not documented in FAA operations specifications as required.
The “flight follower” assigned to keep track of the helicopter waited 41 minutes after the last recorded “ping” from the helicopter before alerting his supervisor. Tordrillo’s emergency response plan stated that a search and rescue facility should be contacted if 30 minutes go by a pre-established time.
Later, the report states that the flight team at the lodge received “erroneous” information from the helicopter operator that the craft was on its way back to the lodge.
It was not until 1 hour and 50 minutes had passed before the flight team notified Soloy Helicopters that the craft was overdue, the report states.
The emergency response plan was activated roughly two hours after the last communications, the report states, and the wreckage was found about 3½ hours after the crash. A rescue team arrived on the scene roughly 5 hours and 40 minutes after the incident, according to the report.
A wrongful death lawsuit was filed earlier this year by Kellner’s family that says the billionaire adventurer who was a frequent guest of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge survived the initial crash but died due to the delay in getting a rescue team to the crash site. Soloy Helicopters LLC, Third Edge Alaska LLC, and Triumvirate LLC — the company that owns Tordrillo Mountain Lodge — have all been named in the suit.
The lawsuit states that the helicopter operator “failed to monitor the location and status of the Helicopter,” leading to Kellner’s death.
NTSB said it is inconclusive whether an earlier rescue would have resulted in the other passengers’ survival, but adds its medical team said a quicker rescue would have lessened the surviving passenger’s injuries.
The NTSB report also stated that the two lead ski guides, previously reported as McManamy and Harms, both tested positive for drugs in their system at the time of the crash. The report said the senior ski guide (not identified) tested positive for amphetamine and cocaine, and was “likely impaired” at the time of the crash.
The other ski guide (again, not identified) tested positive for THC, the primary psychoactive chemical in marijuana, but the levels were low enough that investigators do not believe he was impaired.
“The investigation was unable to determine whether the senior lead guide’s illicit drug use played a role in the accident,” the report stated.
Alaska’s News Source has reached out to the FAA and operators of the aircraft but has not heard back with a statement yet.
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