Plane Crashes at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve Airstrip

by Emily Morgan

Over the Labor Day weekend, a plane crashed at the Jakes Bar airstrip in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. According to a news release, the plane was a Cessna 180. The Park Service later announced that the aircraft crashed at approximately 8:04 p.m. on September 3.

Before the tragedy, the anchorage-based pilot Michael Britsch misjudged the wind direction while trying to land the plane. Due to a gusting tailwind, he couldn’t stop the plane, and the aircraft tire hit a large rock. As a result, the plane flipped over.

Following the incident, park rangers contacted the pilot and passenger and determined that they had only minor injuries and had enough rations on the plane to last them several days. The pilot and passenger stayed overnight in the public use cabin near the airstrip and were picked up by a friend the next day and transported back to Anchorage.

This accident marks the fourth aircraft accident in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park this year. Last month, there was another plane crash at the same national park. Thankfully, the individuals involved in these crashes have survived with only minor injuries.

For many Alaskans, flying is a normal part of life. More than 80 percent of Alaskan neighborhoods are inaccessible by the state’s road system. As a result, many rural areas rely on planes as means of transportation.

Sadly, because of this, Alaska is marred with 42 percent of the deadly plane crashes involving commuters, air taxis, and charter flights. However, Alaska is home to less than 1 percent of the national population. Yet, some aircraft experts argue that many of these crashes are preventable.

Plane crashes in Alaskan national park, experts weigh in on how to prevent similar crashes

According to experts, many of Alaska’s lethal airplane crashes follow a similar pattern. While Alaskan Airlines is one of the country’s top ten safest airlines, it’s a different story with smaller, charter flights. With these smaller planes, weather can be a detrimental factor.

Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Service President Jerry Kiffer said, “If I had to point to one thing, I would say the weather is the biggest contributing factor.”

Valerie Jokela, an Alaskan native who works with the Federal Aviation Administration, said, “Alaska’s very challenging to fly in…There are mostly mountain ranges that generate their own weather.”

To fly safely, pilots need highly accurate information on weather patterns. Unfortunately, many parts of Alaska don’t have the proper equipment to determine the weather since only half of Alaska’s airports have accurate weather reporting instruments.

The shortage is so dire that some small aircraft carriers install weather stations.

According to the Anchorage Daily News, at least ten fatal plane crashes occurred in the state in 2019 alone. Previously, in 2018, Alaska saw nine fatal accidents, eight in 2017, 12 in 2016, and 11 in 2015.