Jason Winters, a longtime commercial pilot who had loved aviation since he helped wash and load seaplanes as a high schooler in Manson, Chelan County, died after a plane he was flying crashed near Whidbey Island Sunday.
Officials have not released details about the cause or circumstances of the crash and the National Transportation Safety Board is conducting an investigation.
The plane, owned and operated by a local charter service, was traveling from Friday Harbor to Renton when it crashed near Whidbey Island Sunday around 3 p.m. A woman’s body was recovered shortly after by the first crews to respond. Around midday Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard suspended rescue efforts for the other nine missing people.
Officials on Tuesday morning released the identities of all 10 people on board, including a retired teacher, a 29-year-old attorney, an entrepreneur from San Diego, a couple from Minnesota and a civil rights activist from Spokane. A Washington vintner, his wife and their 22-month-old son were also among the victims.
Winters was 43. He is survived by his wife and three children.
“Jason was a loving father, partner to his spouse and friend to many,” Winters’ family wrote in a statement to The Seattle Times through a longtime family friend, Conor Davis. “We are devastated by the sudden and tragic passing of his life and all those on board.”
“He was a skilled pilot, with decades of experience. Like all of those impacted, we’re desperately awaiting any answers as to what caused this tragedy,” the statement said.
On Sunday, Winters did not report trouble or issue a mayday, officials said. The plane just disappeared from flight-control radar screens.
The plane, a de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Turbine Otter, was owned by the charter service Northwest Seaplanes and operated by Friday Harbor Seaplanes. “The team at Northwest Seaplanes is heartbroken,” the company said in a statement. “We have been in communication with the families. We are praying for the families involved, including our pilot and his family.”
As a high school student in Manson, Winters started working for Chelan Seaplanes — another charter service that is now a part of Northwest Seaplanes — mostly for something to do, said Ryan Miller, a family friend who was his former classmate and roommate. At first, he helped with odd jobs, like washing and fueling the planes and loading bags. He later started taking lessons to learn to fly himself.
When he was flying, he was a completely different person, Miller said. No joking, barely any smiling.
After flying with Winters numerous times, Miller has told people if he is ever “going into a bad situation or bad weather, whether it’s driving a car or plane or boat, I’d want [Winters] behind the wheel.”
“Everybody remembers Jason,” Miller said Tuesday. “He was just full of life, funny, fun to be around.”
Winters, Miller and Davis later moved near Modesto, California, where Winters and Davis partnered on a recycled wood and scrap metal business. After deciding he wanted to pursue a career in aviation full time, Winters and his family moved back to Manson where he took float plane lessons and got his commercial pilot license. But the group of high school friends stayed in touch and remained tight-knit, Miller said.
At work, Jason was stoic, focused and mostly quiet, Davis said. But as soon as he clocked out, he was laughing and joking.
He was organized, practical and a sounding board for big decisions as the two friends grew up. When Davis asked his friend a question about installing a water system, Winters responded he should go with the 6 inch instead of the 4 inch, putting in the extra money now, to save the labor later.
When visiting the docks that the group of friends would frequent to fish and boat, Davis said he could always tell when Winters had been there first. “Everything will be in perfect order, neat and clean,” he said. “Any weird thing that might have been wrong would have been fixed,” without Winters ever even mentioning the work.
The friends also chipped in to buy a plane and Davis estimated they flew more than 4,000 miles together. If Winters didn’t think the landing would be perfect, he’d circle and try again, Davis said.
Outside of flying, Winters was still often on the move — sometimes in a boat, sometimes on a snowmobile. He’d keep his kids active, too, working in the yard, watching football or cheering on the sidelines of his daughter’s volleyball games or son’s golf tournaments.
Since the crash, Davis said his phone has been buzzing nonstop with texts and calls from friends of Winters, some people Davis never knew himself.
“You don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” Davis said. “No one that ever met him forgot him.”
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.