Two Presumed Dead In Denali National Park Plane Crash (Updated)

The following press release is courtesy of Denali National Park and Preserve:

The plane crash site where two people are feared dead. (DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE)

Update from Denali National Park and Preserve: The search for the downed aircraft has been delayed for safety reasons:

Denali Park, AK – Denali National Park and Preserve mountaineering rangers, working closely with TEMSCO helicopter pilots and mechanic staff, have determined that recovery of pilot Jason Tucker and passenger Nicolas Blace on board the PA-18 aircraft that crashed on a tributary of the West Fork of the Yenta River on August 9 cannot be performed safely at this time.

NPS rangers made five flights to the accident site in the past week. Rangers attempted technical rope lowering down multiple gullies however, each presented a significant overhead rockfall hazard.

Rangers also worked with TEMSCO helicopter pilots to explore the feasibility of hooking into the aircraft wreckage with a mechanical ‘grabber’ on the end of a 450-foot-long line. After testing the equipment at a Talkeetna gravel pit and taking into consideration the accident site itself, the long-line method was also determined to present an excessive risk to the helicopter pilot and spotter due to the unknown weight and transportability of the wreckage, as well as the limited rotor clearance with the surrounding terrain.

“With great empathy for the families of the deceased pilot and hunter,” said Brooke Merrell, Denali Park superintendent, “we have made the difficult determination not to attempt a recovery effort at this time. The steep terrain at the accident site would make a recovery operation too dangerous to further risk the lives of rangers.”

“If and when environmental conditions change, such as lower water volume or a frozen river allows access on foot, we will consider a recovery at that time,” said Denali’s Chief Ranger Jordan Neumann.

Here’s the original press release on the tragedy:

Denali Park, AK – After three reconnaissance flights to the site of a PA-18 aircraft accident in the southwest preserve of Denali National Park and Preserve, officials have determined that pilot Jason Tucker, age 45 of Wasilla, AK, and passenger Nicolas Blace, age 44 of Chugiak, AK, are presumed to have died in the crash.

On Wednesday, August 9 the Alaska Air National Guard Rescue Coordination Center (AKRCC) was informed of an overdue aircraft in Denali National Park’s southwest preserve. An initial search flight launched by the AKRCC that evening was turned around due to weather, however Thursday morning, military personnel on an Air National Guard flight located the aircraft wreckage in a narrow ravine north of the West Fork of the Yentna River. The search crew was unable to land at the accident site due to the steep terrain, but they observed that survivability of the crash was unlikely.

At approximately 4:00 pm Thursday, August 10, two Denali National Park mountaineering rangers flew to the site in order to assess the likelihood of reaching the downed aircraft via a helicopter short-haul line. The rangers conducted an on-site risk assessment and determined that a short-haul mission to the wreckage was not feasible. Hazards under consideration include the 460-foot length of the short-haul line, inadequate helicopter rotor clearance due to the narrow width of the ravine, loose rock lining both walls of the ravine, and the lack of shoreline for miles above and below the rapidly flowing creek at the base of the ravine.

While the NPS rangers were assessing the site on Thursday, the Alaska State Troopers were alerted that a hunter stranded at a remote airstrip outside the southern border of the preserve had sent an InReach message to friends indicating that his pilot had not returned to pick him up.

Upon retrieving the stranded hunter, Alaska State Troopers learned that his pilot (Tucker) and his hunting partner (Blace) departed the initial airstrip on Wednesday intending to fly to a Dillinger River airstrip near the western boundary of the preserve. Tucker intended to drop off Blace, then return for the other hunter, which never happened.

Evidence collected during the investigation indicates that the aircraft did not reach the Dillinger airstrip, and both men are presumed to have died in the crash. Evidence collected includes the lack of fresh landing tracks at the Dillinger airstrip, no presence of hunters at the strip, and no communications from Blace, who was known to possess an InReach communication device.

On Friday, Aug 11, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator flew to the wreckage with Denali National Park mountaineering rangers to conduct further investigation of the accident site, landing on a tundra plateau at the top of the ravine. The NTSB investigator flew a drone into the ravine to collect imagery of the wreckage and further assess the immediate terrain.

After an inter-agency review of the findings by officials from the NPS, the NTSB, the Alaska State Troopers, and the AKRCC, a recovery of the bodies and aircraft, if determined possible, will involve a complex and potentially high-risk ground operation. Further investigation of the site by Denali mountaineering rangers is required and will be conducted in the upcoming days as weather allows. The men’s next of kin have been notified.

“Our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of those involved as we work through this response,” said Brooke Merrell, the superintendent of Denali National Park and Preserve.