Shifting winds and a tree strike were both factors in the small-plane crash near Shaktoolik last month that killed an Alaska aviation legend and an Idaho hunting guide, according to federal investigators.
The National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report Tuesday on the June 16 wreck. Jim Tweto, 68, of Unalakleet and Shane Reynolds, 45, of Orofino, Idaho, died in the crash.
Tweto, who had flown in rural Alaska for decades, was known nationwide for his appearances on the Discovery TV show “Flying Wild Alaska” which followed the operations of family airline Era Alaska.
Clint Johnson, the NTSB’s Alaska chief, said Tuesday that investigators reached the site of the crash, roughly 35 miles northeast of Shaktoolik, a few days after it happened.
“What they found was the airplane appears to have struck a large snag – a tree, a dead tree – during takeoff,” Johnson said. “And the airplane crashed shortly after that.”
According to the report, Tweto was flying from a roughly 750-foot-long remote mountain airstrip near Shaktoolik on the day of the crash, in a Cessna 180H operated by Golden Eagle Outfitters. The airstrip was near the hunters’ camp. Tweto had already flown two bear hunters to Unalakleet from the airstrip that day. The NTSB report said the airstrip was along a sloped ridgeline, so Tweto landed uphill then took off downhill.
“During previous departures, after takeoff, the airplane would dip below the airstrip off the departure end, out of sight, then climb back into view and out of the valley,” NTSB investigator Millicent Hill wrote in the report.
Tweto planned to fly two more trips that day from the airstrip, each carrying a hunting guide plus some gear. Reynolds was the first guide to be flown out, with the second – who told the NTSB he’d seen Tweto fly from the strip on numerous occasions – awaiting the second trip.
“(The second guide) watched the initial portion of the downhill takeoff roll, and nothing appeared abnormal, so he turned away and did not watch the remainder of the takeoff,” said the NTSB report. “When he did not hear the engine noise during climb out or see the airplane climbing, he ran to the ridgeline’s edge and saw the airplane had impacted the tundra 300 (feet) below the airstrip.”
The second guide used his GPS tracker to send an emergency signal, then hiked to the plane to look for survivors.
A helicopter pilot who responded about 45 minutes later said winds in the area were “unusual” that day, cycling between 10- to 12-knot gusts from the north, calm periods and 5-knot gusts from the south.
At the crash site, investigators found a small cluster of trees. One 12-foot-tall, 4-inch-thick tree was broken about 4 feet above its base, on the runway’s left side. The broken trunk “displayed fragments of red paint that matched the accident airplane’s paint color,” said the report.
Tree sap and “embedded tree fibers” were found on the Cessna’s tail, in its left horizontal stabilizer.
NTSB meteorologists are collecting weather data from the area at the time of the crash, Johnson said. Other elements not mentioned in the preliminary report – such as weight and balance of gear aboard the Cessna, as well as any potential medical issues – are also being examined.
The airplane’s wreckage has been recovered from the crash site, according to Johnson, and is currently in Nome en route to investigators.
“We’re expecting that wreckage to be in town here very shortly,” Johnson said. “What we do now is do a wreckage layout – again, that’s standard procedure for us. We’re going to be looking very closely at that airframe and also the power plant, the engine.”
Johnson said Tweto, with whom he’d spoken about Alaska NTSB cases depicted in the Smithsonian Channel series “Alaska Aircrash Investigations,” was one of “our notable folks” in aviation statewide.
“It is pretty amazing how the aviation community has come together and just supported the family,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty heartwarming, I gotta be honest with you.”
Johnson said the preliminary report was delayed by the shortened July 4 work week, as well as NTSB policy barring the release of reports on fatal crashes before major holidays. A factual report containing more information on the crash is expected later in 2023, with a final report in the next 12 months.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated where tree sap and fibers were found. It was on the plane’s left horizontal stabilizer.