Canadian among at least four dead in mid-air float plane crash in Alaska

VANCOUVER — A Canadian was among at least four people killed when two sightseeing planes crashed in mid-air in Alaska, officials confirmed Tuesday as investigators began working to piece together the cause of the tragedy.

Four bodies were recovered and two people were missing after the float planes carrying cruise ship tourists collided Monday near the southeast Alaska town of Ketchikan, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Global Affairs Canada said Canadian consular officials in Seattle were in contact with local authorities to gather additional information and provide assistance as needed.

“Our thoughts and sympathies are with the family and loved ones of the Canadian citizen who died in Alaska,” the department said, adding it could not identify the victim for privacy reasons.

Princess Cruises, a California-based cruise ship company, said the Canadian was among the two missing guests along with an Australian, and the coast guard was continuing to search.

“All of us at Princess Cruises are deeply saddened by this tragic news and we are extending our full support to the investigating authorities as well as the travelling companions of the guests involved,” said company spokesman Brian O’Connor in a statement.

Both planes involved in the crash were carrying guests from the Royal Princess cruise ship, which left Vancouver bound for Anchorage on Saturday and is scheduled to return on May 25.

One of the planes was a single-engine de Havilland Otter operated by Taquan Air and was returning from a wilderness tour sold through Princess Cruises of the Misty Fjords National Monument, the company said.

The Taquan plane was carrying 10 guests from the Royal Princess and a pilot, who were all Americans, it said.

The other plane, a single-engine de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, was operating an independent flight tour carrying a pilot and four guests from the Royal Princess, of which two were American, one was Canadian and the other was Australian, the company added.

Three of those who died were aboard the Beaver plane. It was unclear which plane carried the fourth victim, whose body was recovered during a Monday night search, the coast guard said.

Ten people were taken to a Ketchikan hospital in fair or good condition, said Marty West, a spokeswoman for PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center.

Local emergency responders worked with state and federal agencies and private vessels to help rescue and recover victims.

“It’s been a long day and the crews have been working really hard to rescue people and recover the deceased,” said Deanna Thomas, a spokeswoman for the local government, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough.

Taquan Air said the company has suspended operations while the crash is investigated.

“We are devastated by today’s incident and our hearts go out to our passengers and their families,” it said in a statement issued Monday.

It’s not known how the planes collided. U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigators were on their way from Washington, D.C., to the site and were due to arrive Tuesday.

Larry Vance, a former investigator with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said the planes would not have been advised by air-traffic control and instead would have been flying under visual flight rules.

“The way it’s supposed to work, so you do not have a collision, is you’re supposed to keep a real sharp visual watch for other airplanes,” Vance said.

In places where congestion is expected, such as tourist areas, operators often develop procedures to avoid crashes, such as flying at a different altitude depending on direction, he added.

“You can assume right off the top that they never saw each other,” he said of the Alaska crash.

“The worst-case scenario is they were coming straight at each other and hit head on. It’s also entirely possible they were both going in the same direction, and one was climbing up and the other was descending.”

Steve McCaughey, a pilot and executive director of the Florida-based Seaplane Pilots Association, said the two types of planes involved are popular and flown all over Alaska and the world.

There’s very little or no reduction in visibility that comes with having floats instead of wheels, he said.

McCaughey said there were many unanswered questions and he was awaiting the outcome of the investigation, but he wondered whether atmospheric conditions played a role.

Weather in the area where the crash happened Monday included high overcast skies with southeast winds gusting at 14 kilometres per hour.

“They call it Misty Fjords for a reason,” McCaughey said.

Starting next January, the Federal Aviation Administration will require all American aircraft to have tracking devices called ADS-B, which send out signals that show the aircraft’s position.

McCaughey said most commercial planes, especially those in high-traffic environments, already have this equipment. If they don’t, it would be their last season flying without it, he said.

The collision came nearly three years after a pilot and eight passengers died when a de Havilland DHC-3 Otter crashed in mountainous terrain near Ketchikan

The National Transportation Safety Board later determined that pilot error and lack of a formal safety program were among the causes of the June 2015 crash.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Laura Kane, The Canadian Press

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