Federal investigators have found holes in the floats of two small planes that crashed on Alaska waterways in the past month, leaving both of their pilots dead.
The National Transportation Safety Board released preliminary reports on the crashes Thursday. The information sheds new light on both the Sept. 25 Whiskey Lake crash near Skwentna that killed 67-year-old Anchorage woman Janell Rude and two dogs, and the Oct. 5 Chena Marina Airstrip crash near Fairbanks that killed 75-year-old wilderness guide Jerald Stansel.
No one else was aboard either plane.
According to the Whiskey Lake report, Rude was flying from the lake to Anchorage’s Lake Hood Seaplane Base. Family members reported her overdue on the afternoon of her trip, and a family friend flew over the lake and spotted wreckage of the flipped plane.
Alaska State Troopers said a U.S. Air Force rescue team responded to the lake and recovered Rude’s body from the Cessna 180.
NTSB investigators found that the plane’s controls were working, with the propeller blades bent — suggesting the plane’s engine was running during the crash. They counted a total of seven patches on the plane’s “heavily corroded and discolored” floats, including a single patch on the severed left float “with another patch on top of it.”
Clint Johnson, the NTSB’s Alaska chief, emphasized Friday that data in both of Thursday’s reports was preliminary. He confirmed that the wear on the Whiskey Lake plane’s floats was under investigation.
“There was a pretty good-size, plate-size, dinner-platter-size hole in that (left) float, and the floats were in pretty tough shape as far as corrosion and pitting and just in pretty poor shape,” Johnson said.
Johnson said damage to the Whiskey Lake plane’s floats resembled that seen in the July 2020 crash of a floatplane which flipped during a landing at Lake Hood in Anchorage. The NTSB ultimately found the probable cause of that crash, which both of the plane’s occupants safely escaped, to be “the failure of the left float bottom due to corrosion, which resulted in a loss of control during the water landing.”
In the report of the Oct. 5 Chena Marina Airstrip crash, investigators said witnesses saw Stansel loading his Cessna 185 with various cargo including “fishing gear, various sets of hip waders, filled fuel jugs, backpacks, a generator, and camping gear.” He then tried to take off from the marina, but aborted his takeoff and began taxiing on the water for another run.
According to the report, many people watched Stansel’s takeoff run. One of them told investigators that the engine appeared to be running at full power.
“He noted that after the airplane turned around and began to back-taxi, the airplane’s attitude was nose low in the water, and the floats were almost completely submerged,” investigators wrote. “He added that it appeared that the pilot was using an unusually high-power setting for taxi.”
As the plane was taxiing, it suddenly rolled to the left then nosed over, with the cabin sinking as the Cessna flipped.
“Numerous good Samaritans and first responders attempted to free the pilot trapped inside the submerged airplane, but unrestrained cargo in the cabin shifted forward during (the crash) and rescuers were unable to free the pilot from the cockpit of the inverted, submerged airplane,” investigators wrote.
Troopers said Stansel was taken to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital after the crash, where he was pronounced dead.
Investigators found two holes at the front of each of the plane’s floats, which Johnson said were apparently left open after the replacement of bumpers fitted as shock absorbers to soften impacts against docks.
“The airplane was loaded to the point where those holes were submerged,” Johnson said. “And we’re theorizing at this point right now that that’s probably how the water got into the forward compartments into the floats.”
The NTSB is still trying to determine how much cargo was loaded into Stansel’s plane.
Damage to floatplanes’ aluminum floats can be difficult to spot beneath the waterline, Johnson said, but general aviation aircraft are required to undergo annual inspections to determine their airworthiness.
The NTSB is still investigating exactly what caused the two fatal crashes — but the common element involving the planes’ floats, Johnson said, has caught investigators’ attention.
“You know, that’s our job, is to look at how accidents took place, find out the circumstances and the sequence of events and then make recommendations to keep it from happening again,” Johnson said. “Whether it’ll be recommendations that come out of this, I can’t tell you at this point right now, but we do want to at least get the word out.”
The NTSB will later release a factual and final report on both crashes.