Small plane that crashed in rural Alaska, killing 2, apparently struck tree, official says

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A small plane that crashed in Alaska last month, killing a bush pilot who was featured on a reality TV show and a hunting guide, apparently struck a tree during takeoff from a rural airstrip, an official said Tuesday.

Clint Johnson, the National Transportation Safety Board’s Alaska region chief, told Alaska Public Media the apparent strike of a large snag, or dead tree, “subsequently rendered the vertical stabilizer inoperative. And the airplane crashed shortly after that.”

The agency on Tuesday released a preliminary report on the crash that killed pilot Jim Tweto, 68, of Unalakleet, and Shane Reynolds, 45, of Orofino, Idaho. Tweto’s family-run rural aviation business was featured in three seasons of the Discovery Channel’s “Flying Wild Alaska” series. Tweto was also well known in Alaska’s aviation community.

The investigation continues, with a final report expected within a year.

The crash occurred near the coastal village of Shaktoolik, which is about 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of Nome. A witness reported shifting winds around the time of the flight, according to the report.

The day of the crash, two hunting guides were waiting to be picked up from the remote airstrip near their camp to be flown to the Unalakleet airport. Tweto had already picked up two hunters and had told the guides he’d return for them. When he returned, one of the guides got on board with some gear and Tweto planned to come back for the other guide and the rest of the gear, the report states.

“During previous departures, after takeoff, the airplane would dip below the airstrip off the departure end, out of sight, then climb back into view and out of the valley,” NTSB investigator Millicent Hill wrote in the report.

The guide who remained back watched the initial part of the takeoff and when nothing appeared awry, turned away and did not see the rest of the takeoff, the report states. When he did not hear engine noise or see the airplane climbing, he ran to the edge of the ridgeline and saw that the plane had hit the tundra 300 feet (91 meters) below the airstrip. He sent an emergency alert from a GPS tracker and then hiked to the wreckage, according to the report.

A helicopter pilot who responded about 45 minutes later said winds in the area were “unusual” that day, variable and gusting, the report says.

At the crash site, investigators found a 4-inch-thick tree on the runway’s left side, which had been broken about 4 feet (1.2 meters) above its base. The broken trunk “displayed fragments of red paint that matched the accident airplane’s paint color,” according to the report.