Issaquah residents Karen and Matt Smith were returning to Anchorage on Sunday when the Piper Navajo they were in collided with a Cessna floatplane as both planes flew through Lake Clark Pass.
It’s not often you’re in a plane crash in remote Alaska and live to tell the tale.
But that’s what happened to Issaquah residents Karen and Matt Smith on Sunday, who had just left Lake Clark National Park, No. 51 on their list as they work on visiting every national park in the country.
They were returning to Anchorage when the Piper Navajo they were in collided with a Cessna floatplane as both planes flew through Lake Clark Pass. The midair accident damaged the tail of the Piper and damaged a float in the float plane, which carried four people, but both planes were able to land safely with no injuries.
“The odds of a midair collision are very much against you,” said Mike Fergus, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). “Even coming in contact, I can’t believe there was so little damage.”
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The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.
“It seems like a dream,” Karen Smith said. “My husband and I were very, very fortunate.”
The couple had been in Alaska for nine days and had visited the Lake Clark, Denali and Katmai national parks. The couple had boarded the small plane at Port Alsworth, flown to a small Native village to drop off a passenger and picked up the rest of the group of eight.
The plane was crossing Lake Clark Pass, flying at about 2,300 feet, when Karen Smith heard a loud bang and the plane shuddered. “We all looked at each other, but the plane kept on going,” she said. “We expected we would fall out of the sky.”
She heard another passenger yell that the plane had been hit by an eagle. About five minutes before the plane was to arrive in Anchorage, the pilot asked Matt Smith, who was sitting directly behind the pilot, to tell the rest of the passengers that they would be making an emergency landing.
It wasn’t until they were on the ground that the pilot told the group that the plane had been struck by another airplane.
The damage was visible when they stepped from the plane.
“The pilot said he never saw the plane coming,” Smith said. “We were worried sick. We didn’t know what happened to the other plane.”
They soon learned that it, too, landed safely.
Matt and Karen Smith quit their jobs a year ago; she worked for the Red Cross and he worked in retirement investments. Their youngest child had just left for college, and they’d always had a passion for the national parks, so they decided to spend a year visiting all 58 of the parks.
“My sister was diagnosed with cancer and died a year later. We were looking at turning 50, and we’d had close friends our age who died suddenly,” Karen Smith said. “This is something we thought we’d do in our lifetime and came to the conclusion, ‘Why wait?’ There’s no guarantees this might not happen to us so we decided to go for it.”
She said many of her friends thought they were crazy, to give up jobs for this adventure, “but it’s been amazing. We’ve had an incredible time.”
They’ve driven to all the parks in the west but had to fly to those on the East Coast and to a national park in American Samoa and another one in the Virgin Islands.
Karen Smith said at the time of the accident she had just gotten over her fear of flying in small planes. “I can do this now,” she said. “I’m not afraid of small planes, then ‘bang.’ “
Matt Smith, who was sitting by a window on the plane, said he saw a shadow across the windshield right before the loud bang, but he didn’t know what it was. It sounded like being struck by something much larger than a bird — like a car had hit the plane, he said.
The couple still hopes to finish 56 parks by the end of the summer.
But that will leave two parks, both in remote parts of Alaska — Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley — which they hope to visit next summer. Both visits will require flights.
Said Matt Smith: “It may be hard to get my wife back on a small plane.”
Karen Smith said she’s game. “We’re going to see this through,” she said. “It’s a 100 billion chance it will happen again. I may be medicated, but I will do it.”
Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or email@example.com