On a remote part of the southeastern Alaskan coastline, amid a landscape of searing cliffs and snaking inlets that could easily be the setting for a Tolkien novel, a sightseeing float plane crashed into a granite rock face Thursday, killing all nine people on board.
The bodies of the nine dead remained at the crash site overnight as rain and wind battered the remote and gloomy expanse of rock, inhibiting the recovery effort, according to Alaska State Troopers spokesperson Megan Peters. It was the state’s deadliest airplane crash since 2013.
Officials have not identified the aircraft’s pilot and eight passengers, all tourists on a week-long Holland America cruise that left Seattle on Saturday. They had boarded the plane — a small, single-engine craft equipped with slender floats that allow it to land on water — earlier that day for a tour of Alaska’s Misty Fjords National Monument.
Their ship, the Westerdam, was docked in the tiny nearby city of Ketchikan and due to depart an hour before the plane was reported missing. But it remained in port as of Thursday evening, according to the Associated Press, sitting 20 miles from the crash site amid gray waters and overcast skies.
It’s still unclear what caused the crash, the latest of hundreds in the past thirty years. Float planes play a vital role in this isolated area of Alaska, 300 miles from Juneau. The region is densely forested and crisscrossed by inlets and bays, and float planes — nimble, aquatic, versatile — offer the best means of connecting towns far from the nearest tarmac. They ferry mail, supplies, tourists and information around the region, prompting many locals to argue that the aircraft should be designated Alaska’s state bird, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But the planes are also fragile and prone to fatalities. Since 1985, 697 float plane accidents have killed 258 people across Alaska, the LA Times reported, citing statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Speaking to the LA Times, Ketchikan historian Dave Kiffer called floatplane pilots the glue that holds southeastern Alaska together.
“In this part of the state, you don’t just drive to the next town,” he said. “These folks face danger on every flight. If you take chances, they will eventually catch up with you. There’s an old saying here: ‘There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.’”
In 2010, a float plane crash killed Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R) and four others. They’d been flying a De Haviland Otter, the same type of plane that went down near Ketchikan Thursday.
Stevens had much the same view of small plane crashes as Kiffer.
“Plane crashes are the occupational hazard of Alaska politics,” he once told the Washington Post, because travel in the state necessarily means flying in small planes in rough and unpredictable weather.
Alaska lost another former legislator, state Rep. Cheryll Heinze (R), in a float plane crash two years later. Heinze and four others drowned after becoming trapped in an overturned plane that had sunk into a lake.
Some Alaskans argue that float plane flight is more dangerous even than the blizzard-defying bush piloting that is its counterpart in the state’s snow-stricken north. Combined, the two necessary but risky forms of air travel make for dismal safety statistics in the state: According to the Associated Press, analysis of Alaskan aviation data by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Air Safety Foundation found a rate of 13.59 accidents per 100,000 flight hours between 2004 and 2008, nearly two and a half times the comparative national rate.
“Alaska’s very challenging to fly in,” Valerie Jokela, a dog musher from Anchorage who flew for years and now also works with the Federal Aviation Administration, told the AP in 2010. “There are mostly mountain ranges that generate their own weather, and mountain passes, and glaciers — and glaciers make their own weather, too.”
According to Peters, it’s still not clear whether bad weather caused the deadly crash on Thursday. She did note that the steep terrain is already difficult to navigate — any kind of unfavorable weather makes flight doubly risky.
Promech Air, the charter and sightseeing service that operated the plane that crashed, issued a statement on the accident to the Alaska Dispatch News.
“There is nothing I can say that can alleviate the pain and overwhelming sense of loss that we and the loved ones of those affected are feeling,” read the statement from Marcus Sessoms, the company’s president. “At this moment, all of us share the pain and anguish of this terrible event.”