Three Californians killed after plane takes off into hillside

Skagway firefighters and EMS volunteers observe the plane crash debris in the woods above town about a half hour after the fatal crash. Dimitra Lavrakas

Bonanza just misses homes off Dyea Road

A small private plane crashed on take off from the Skagway Airport on Aug. 8. There were no survivors.
Pilot Don Johnson, 68, and passengers James Morton Jr., 70, and Lawrence Solin, 45, were all from the Sacramento, Calif. area, according to Alaska State Troopers.
The men were on a fishing trip to Alaska, and were heading to Yakutat after their brief stay in Skagway.
The single engine Beechcraft Bonanza, which is a high-powered aircraft with a distinctive V-tail, took off north into a 24 mph wind on the Friday afternoon.
“I heard it come over my head through the trees then crash,” said Skagway Search and Rescue member Jason Jones, who was sitting on the deck of Bruce Schindler’s cabin less than 100 yards from the crash scene as it was happening.
Jones quickly ran to the crash site to assess the situation. Upon arrival, he heard a “whoosh” which was the fuel igniting, approximately one minute after the crash.
A mere two minutes later, the first of many members of the Skagway Volunteer Fire Department crew arrived on scene. Eventually, 29 volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel would respond.
“The response time was great, especially for a volunteer fire department,” said Fire Chief Martin Beckner. “They were able to stop the threat of wildfire and extinguish the wreckage.”

Smoke rises from the site of the crash. Robert WarrenThe aircraft went down off an access road about 1,000 feet below Mile 3 Dyea Road, and was witnessed by several people.
Doug Boston, a recently retired 29-year pilot for Delta Airlines, was staying in Garden City R.V. Park when the event occurred. He was admiring the unique aircraft as it took off.
“It pulled into too steep of a turn, lost lift, and went into a nose-dive,” said Boston.
But Boston’s assessment is still just a theory.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, and an inspector was on the scene Saturday. On Monday, a representative of the plane’s manufacturer also inpsected the site.

Assistant Fire Chief Casey McBride manages the hose at the crash site. Dimitra Lavrakas

“We’re a long way off from determining the cause,” said NTSB Investigator Scott Erickson by phone from Anchorage. “The continuing part will be to look at pilot history and maintenance records of the aircraft.”
The cause then may lie with the technical nature of taking off to the north, which is what is required when the wind is blowing out of the north.
“It’s not a standard departure type of maneuver, but a witness described a fairly early turn to the left,” said Erickson.
Local private pilot Dennis Bousson has taken off north into the valley many times, and concedes that it can be difficult.
“You have to get enough altitude before you turn around [and head south], and if you’re having trouble, you can turn right up the Denver Valley and turn around up there,” said Bousson.
Boston wasn’t the only witness who is a pilot. Erik “Timbo” Timblin earned his private pilot’s license in 2000, and enjoys watching planes take off from the Skagway airport at his job at Jewell Gardens.
Timblin has flown the Bonanza before, and said the V-tail aircraft is “powerful but squirrely because you don’t have the standard rudder.”
Timblin was just wrapping up a tour of the gardens when he observed the plane deviate from the normal take-off pattern.
“I noticed him full throttle and pitched heavily [the nose was pointing up] as he made a left hand turn,” he said. “He pitched up even more as he made the turn, which dropped his airspeed.”
Johnson apparently didn’t have the altitude to clear the ridge going up A.B. Mountain, so he was attempting to make the turn tighter to the left.
Timblin said the plane, with its left wing angled down, began to lose vital lift, which caused the wing to stall.
Most people assume a stall is engine related, like with an automobile, but in the aviation world a stall simply means the wing no longer has air flowing beneath it to create lift.
“If a wing’s not generating lift, all it is a big old weight on the plane,” said Timblin. “To correct a stall, you pitch the nose down to regain your airspeed, otherwise you continue stalling.”
Timblin believes Johnson pulled back on the yoke (the plane’s steering wheel) in an attempt to raise the nose and clear the ridge, forcing the Bonanza into a full stall on both wings.
“The left wing rolled 180 degrees, turning the plane upside down. The weight of the nose then caused it to drop straight down about 300 feet to the ground,” said Timblin.
The 11 tourists on Timblin’s garden tour also witnessed the tragic event, and minutes later as he somberly loaded them into a van for their ride back to town, he encouraged them to “say a prayer for that pilot and the passengers of that plane.”
Now the prayers go out to the families of the victims.
There have been 22 fatalities in aviation crashes in Alaska so far in 2003, that’s the total number of fatalities in 2002 alone.

Border gates are ready to defend. DL

Securing the port of Skagway - behind metal gates

Our country’s new Department of Homeland Security is beefing up the borders. Two metal gates have been erected at the entrance to Skagway’s port of entry, but contrary to local speculation, they won’t be used on a regular basis.
Part of the department’s nationwide program, “Hardening the Borders,” the gates won’t be lowered unless an alert calls for it.
“The gates are supposed to go to those border crossings that are not officially open 24 hours a day,” said Dan Holland, area port director in Anchorage for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security.
Holland said the border station never officially changed its status to a 24-hour station after Sept. 11. Previously, it was closed from midnight to 8 a.m., and an incoming traveler could report to a video camera, and among the questions asked was their name, nationality, and car’s registration. But that trusting, innocent system was doomed after 9/11.
Four people were on staff in the 80s, Holland said. It has since risen to 13, and not all positions have been filled, he said.
“We’re just trying to be realistic,” said Holland from Anchorage. “We don’t want to set off an alarm (with the public) that we’re going to close the border at midnight.”
He recognizes the futility of trying to close the entire border, particularly at Skagway where there is access down the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad tracks and over the Chilkoot Trail.
“There’s lots of ways to come in,” he said. “We’re not border patrol, we’re there to staff the port.”
Asked about a lively rumor that there’s a button in a central location that can bring down all the gates at all the border station at the same time in case of a national emergency, Holland laughed.
“I don’t have the button in that case,” he said.

Incumbents file for seats, one council seat remains unclaimed
Incumbents are already lining up to run in this October’s municipal election. Mayor Tim Bourcy has filed for what would be his second two-year term.
Incumbents, and seemingly councilmembers for life, J. Frey and Dave Hunz, have filed for their seats which run for three years.
Members of the current school board have filed for their seats already. Darren Belisle, who took Tom Cochran’s seat after he resigned, and Chris Maggio, a write-in candidate in last year’s election have filed for three-year terms. Joanne Korsmo, who was appointed after the resignation of Dawn Kilburn, will campaign for a one-year seat.
John Mielke, who was appointed to a three-year seat vacated by Stan Selmer, said he would not run. That seat has yet to be filed for as of Wednesday, said City Clerk Marj Harris. Deadline for filing for school board and city seats is August 18 at 5 p.m. – DL

State Senator Lincoln introduces herself to Skagway

You know what they always say about hiring a lawyer – get a barracuda. To represent your interests in the state Legislature, you’d want an Alaskan version, and District C has that in Sen. Georgianna Lincoln. Lincoln may be petite, but she has a forceful personality and a sharp mind, and she defends rural and Bush interests fiercely.
Raised in the Yukon River village of Rampart, she said she came from a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father, she told the Skagway City Council in a special meeting July 4. That experience taught her to go in the opposite direction, not take up drinking, but become a role model for children.

State Senator Georgianna Lincoln talks with Bob Ward. DL

She does admit, however, to “cussing up a blue streak.”
Ever since the majority in the State House swung from Democrats to Republicans, she’s had many occasions to do just that, she said. From what she saw in the last session, she said lawmakers seemed to have their minds made up about bills and issues and public input really didn’t matter.
“I urge you to go to Juneau and have your voices heard,” she told the City Council.
As for the state’s new U.S. senator, she said Lisa Murkowski’s name is not a good one around the state of Alaska. Lincoln thinks people are angry that Gov. Frank Murkowski left the U.S. Senate in order to name his replacement, his daughter, Lisa.
“People are upset,” she said. “She probably prays every night that she changed her married name.”
Lincoln said Gov. Murkowski has his mind made up on Juneau Access, notably a road.
“I think the governor will have some kind of road out of Juneau,” Lincoln said, noting that the state Department of Transportation & Public Facilities is pushing it. “I don’t know where he’s going to get the money – he says from the feds, but who will maintain it? I don’t know if it’s Skagway or Haines. They’re doing another study for how much the road would be to Haines.”
Lincoln lamented that legislators no longer look at Alaska as a whole.
“But it’s so divided now, it doesn’t move our state forward,” she said.


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