SOLDOTNA, Alaska — Two families from Greenville, S.C., on their way to a bear-viewing lodge on the Alaska Peninsula, have been identified as nine of the 10 people killed in the fiery crash of an air taxi taking off from the Soldotna airport Sunday.
The victims were Milton and Kimberly Antonakos and their children, Olivia, 16, Mills, 14, and Anastacia, 11, and Dr. Chris McManus, his wife, Stacey, and their two children, Connor and Meghan.
Nikiski, Alaska, native Walter “Willie” Rediske, 42, was identified Sunday as the pilot. He also died.
Federal investigators say they are just beginning their investigation to determine what caused the de Havilland DHC3-T Otter to crash and burn feet from the lone runway at the Soldotna Municipal Airport just after 11:20 a.m. local time Sunday, killing all aboard in the worst aviation accident in Alaska in more than a decade.
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A National Transportation Safety Board “Go-Team” was dispatched from Washington, D.C., and arrived in Alaska on Monday. Go-Teams are assigned to investigate major aviation crashes.
After a brief news conference at the Anchorage airport, the federal investigators left for Soldotna to survey the scene of the crash.
Among their first priorities, said NTSB board member Earl Weener, will be to determine whether the plane’s turboprop engine was running when the plane crashed. Investigators would also look closely at the weight of what was being carried and how it was distributed on the plane, among other factors.
“Our aim is to determine not just what happened but why it happened,” Weener said.
Walter Rediske had been scheduled to fly guests to Bear Mountain Lodge on Sunday, said lodge owner Mac McGahan.
The bear viewing lodge on the Alaska Peninsula regularly worked with Rediske, as well as other pilots, to ferry guests from the Kenai Peninsula to the remote lodge, he said. The planes used a small landing strip or the beach to land.
As the group prepared to leave Soldotna, the weather was cloudy, with light winds. Just after 11:20 a.m., something went very wrong as the plane took off.
On Monday evening, NTSB investigators touched down in Soldotna and immediately headed to the crash site to look at the wreckage, then briefed reporters at the airport. The airport had been closed since Sunday’s crash. It reopened Monday morning.
Much isn’t yet known about what caused the crash, Weener said.
The plane was torn apart on impact, he said. Both wings were ripped off and the propeller bent. Much of the aircraft burned. The engine was intact.
Two cellphones were found in the wreckage, Weener said. They’ll be analyzed for recordings or photos that could provide clues to the crash. Investigators say there was no voice or data recorder onboard, which aren’t required for that type of plane.
Weener said investigators were looking at different ways the pilot could have lost control of the plane.
“We’ll look at weather. We’ll look at the loading. We’ll look at the mechanical performance of the airplane, try to understand what the condition of the flight controls were,” he said.
On Monday, family and friends of the dead mourned the 10 who died: nine on a vacation to see Alaska’s beauty, one who grew up surrounded by it.
According to the Columbia, S.C., newspaper, the Antonakos family usually vacationed in Myrtle Beach, S.C., each summer, but the father of Kimberly Antonakos says his daughter and her family decided to travel to Alaska this year
The newspaper said Milton Antonakos sold computer software to hospitals and doctors’ offices, while Kimberly shuffled the three children — Olivia, Mills and Anastacia — to their many activities.
The newspaper also reported that McManus, a radiologist, was helping his son Connor to earn the Boy Scouts’ rank of Eagle Scout. The couple’s daughter Meghan was looking at colleges. Stacey McManus was a board member at the Episcopal church that both families attended, the newspaper said.
Walter Rediske was the son of an electrician who was able to realize his dream of starting an air taxi business ferrying people into Alaska’s wilderness.
When his father died in 2001, Rediske and his sister took over Rediske Air, building a business flying tourists, oil field workers and supplies all over the Kenai Peninsula and to the remote western shore of Cook Inlet, according to accounts from friends.
On Monday, the flag at Rediske Air in Nikiski flew at half-staff. A children’s wooden play structure stood next to the building, where a few family and friends had gathered.
“There’s a lot of grieving going on,” said Andy Harcombe, a pilot and close family friend who is acting as a family and business spokesperson.
Rediske was the “heart and soul” of the business, Harcombe said. He leaves a wife and three young children — two boys and a girl.
“The Rediske family and all of us here at Rediske Air would like to offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends of all those involved in this tragedy,” he said.
Harcombe said the company is working with the NTSB as the agency investigates.
Rediske Air operates six airplanes including the de Havilland DHC-3 Otter that crashed. The plane, which was only manufactured from 1951 to 1967, is prized by Bush pilots in Alaska who consider it a powerful and reliable workhorse, said Palmer pilot Doug Glenn of Glenn Air.
These days, most Alaska pilots have retrofitted the Otter with a turbine engine, which adds horsepower and increases reliability, Glenn said. Still, they are known as “squirrely” planes, he said.
“It’s easy to stall the thing out,” Glenn said. “The Otter is a great airplane. But it will bite you.”
There have been 54 crashes of de Havilland Otter planes in Alaska since 1967, according to an NTSB database. Some of those planes had modified engines; some did not. Eight of those crashes — including the 2010 crash in Aleknagik that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens and four other people — were fatal.
Walter Rediske was known as the kind of pilot who could fly an Otter safely, even elegantly, said Jack Barber, the owner of Alaska Air Taxi and a pilot here for more than 50 years.
“He (was) well liked and well respected,” Barber said. “He had good equipment. It’s just a very sad deal for a lot of people today.”
Barber and Glenn said news of the crash had traveled quickly through the world of Alaska Bush pilots.
Glenn said his phone lit up with text messages all night.
Barber was in Seldovia when he learned of the death of his friend and his passengers Sunday night. He had planned to fly home, a quick jaunt up the Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage. But the weather was stormy. He opted to wait until morning.
“I just didn’t feel like flying,” he said. “Maybe for that moment you look at things and say, hey, maybe it’s best to sit on the ground and think things through for a while.”
People are already guessing about what caused the crash: mechanical failure, pilot error or something else, Barber said. It bothers him.
If anyone can find out what caused the plane full of 10 people to explode into flames before leaving the airport it will be the NTSB, not speculators, Barber said.
The agency says it expects to release a preliminary report on the crash in 30 days.