A Cle Elum resident was the pilot of a sightseeing plane that crashed Thursday near Ketchikan, Alaska, killing all six people aboard.
Rolf Lanzendorfer, 64, had been piloting commercial floatplanes for more than 40 years, largely in British Columbia, Chelan, Alaska and the Seattle area. He was “an excellent pilot,” said Clyde Carlson, the founder of Renton-based Northwest Seaplanes, Lanzendorfer’s former employer.
Southeast Aviation, Lanzendorfer’s employer since 2015 and the owner of the plane he was flying at the time of the crash, said in a statement that it is cooperating with an ongoing investigation led by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The Federal Aviation Administration is also investigating the cause of the crash.
“We are thinking of and grieving with the families of the five passengers and our dear friend and pilot aboard the aircraft,” the statement, issued Thursday, read.
The five passengers, identified by Alaska state troopers late Saturday, were Mark Henderson, 69, and Jacquelyn Komplin, 60, both of Napa, California; Andrea McArthur, 55, and Rachel McArthur, 20, both of Woodstock, Georgia; and Janet Kroll, 77, of Mount Prospect, Illinois.
All five had been passengers on the Holland America Line cruise ship Nieuw Amsterdam, which left Seattle last Saturday en route to Alaska. After docking in Ketchikan on Thursday, the passengers booked an excursion through Southeast Aviation to see the Misty Fjords National Monument by floatplane. The monument, part of the Tongass National Forest, boasts deep glacier valleys, snow-capped peaks and pristine forest wilderness.
The plane took off around 10 a.m., according to flight-tracking database FlightAware. Its emergency beacon was activated about 11:20 a.m. Thursday when it crashed near the monument, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
A helicopter company reported seeing wreckage on a ridgeline later that afternoon. Coast Guard personnel lowered to the site — a sheer cliff surrounded by tall spruce — confirmed there were no survivors.
Poor weather and deteriorating visibility hampered early efforts to recover the bodies, but Saturday afternoon, Alaska State Troopers and members of the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad made it to the crash site via a chartered Temsco helicopter and retrieved the victims’ remains.
Persistent fog, low clouds and rain have continued to delay efforts to retrieve plane debris, which could give investigators some indication as to the cause of the crash.
“Everything’s at a cold stop until we get the wreckage off the hill,” NTSB spokesperson Clint Johnson said. “The weather is presenting a nuisance.”
Seattle-based Holland America Line said in a statement Thursday that the passengers booked the floatplane tour independently. It was “not sold by Holland America Line,” the company said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of the victims.” The Nieuw Amsterdam returned to Seattle on Saturday.
Lanzendorfer was also the pilot in a Southeast Aviation crash in July near Coffman Cove in Southeast Alaska, Johnson confirmed. The plane hit a buoy shortly after takeoff, nosed over and went upside down into the water; Lanzendorfer, the only person onboard, was uninjured. Southeast did not immediately respond to questions about how it assessed Lanzendorfer’s fitness to fly after that crash.
The aircraft involved in the July crash was damaged, according to local media reports that described debris in the water. Lanzendorfer was flying a different plane on Thursday, Johnson said.
Another Southeast plane crashed in 2012 during a charter flight from the Niblack precious-metals mine site southwest of Ketchikan. The NTSB attributed the crash to the pilot’s choice to continue flying after a snowstorm impaired his visibility. The plane crashed into the water after one of its floats hit a rocky outcrop near the shoreline. The pilot and passenger suffered injuries.
In the past 15 years, Alaska’s share of small commercial aircraft crashes has risen from roughly 20% of the country’s total to more than 40%, according to an investigation by nonprofit newsroom ProPublica in partnership with Alaskan radio station KUCB and Coast Alaska. While Alaska residents are more reliant on charter flights than most of the United States, the state has few safeguards for small-craft commercial air travel, the report concluded.
Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.