Alaska Airlines Flight 1866

3 Sep 10 15 Comments

39 years ago on the 4th of September 1971, Alaska Airlines Flight 1866 crashed on approach to Juneau, Alaska.

The Boeing 727, carrying 104 passengers and 7 crew members, flew into the Chilkat Mountain range. There were no survivors.

Aircraft Accident Report, Alaska Airlines, Inc. Boeing 727, N2969G

The flight had been cleared for a Localizer Directional Aid (LDA) approach to Runway 8 and had reported passing the final approach fix inbound to the airport. This intersection is located 10.2 nautical miles west of the airport.

No further communications were heard from the flight.

Search and rescue found the wreckage 18.5 NM west of the airport. They had crashed into the slope of a canyon in the Chilkat Mountains. The wreckage was found around the 2,500 foot level, in “near-alignment with the Juneau localizer course”.

(See the comments below for an identification of this photograph and a link to an actual photograph of the site where the accident occurred.)

Witnesses said they heard a low-flying aircraft but couldn’t see the plane due to the fog.

They further stated that the engines sounded normal and that there was no change in the engine sounds from the time they first heard the aircraft until the sound of explosions was heard approximately 1 minute later.

The weather was not good: scattered cloud at 1,500 feet, broken cloud at 3,500 feet, overcast at 7,500 feet and light rainshowers. Visibility at Juneau Municipal Airport was given as 15 miles but the visibility on the ground near the crash site was estimated at 60-70 yards (55-65 metres).

Correlation between the CVR readout and the approximate flightpath derived from the flight data recorder traces shows that the first, unmistakable abnormality in the flight’s progress occurred at 1201:03 when the captain told the first officer; “‘kay, you’re Howard,” although the aircraft was actually about 9 NM west of Howard. Since prior cockpit conversation indicates that the captain had set the 3530 radial (Howard Intersection) into his CDI, it appears that the crew depended on a display of navigational information that seemed to be correct but was in error by about 450°. Similar erroneous indications of progress along the localizer course are evidence in subsequent intracockpit conversation with the conversation dealing with the passing of Rockledge and Earlow Intersections, although the aircraft, in fact, never progressed as far as Howard.

What this means is that although we don’t know what went wrong with the navigation, the cockpit recorder makes it very clear that the crew believed the plane was 11 miles (18.5 km) further along than it was and thus they descended below the safe altitude for the approach. The weather meant that they could not see the terrain below them nor the landmarks which would have alerted them that they were still in the mountains. There is no evidence that the crew ever became aware that they were flying into the mountain range.

The NTSB concluded that there were a number of different possibilities, ranging from malfunctioning equipment to signal interference to operational factions; however there was not enough evidence to support any one of them as the most probable explanation.

Probable Cause
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was a display of misleading navigational information concerning the flight’s progress along the localizer course which resulted in a premature descent below obstacle clearance altitude. The origin or nature of the misleading navigational information could not be determined. The Board further concludes that the crew did not use all available navigational aids to check the flight’s progress along the localizer nor were these aids required to be used. The crew also did not perform the required audio identification of the pertinent navigational facilities.

That’s not to say that operational issues were the cause but that the crash could possibly have been avoided if the crew had used additional nav aids and especially that the cause could have been better identified if they had checked the audio identification of the VORs.

Neither the aircraft nor the navigational aids were found to have pertinent physical faults, so it does seem quite likely that human factors caused the initial issue. It is refreshing to see that the NTSB did not simply blame the crew. Although the report includes an in-depth analysis of the operational issues which could have led to a basic error being made, they clearly acknowledge that there is no evidence that crew error caused the crash.

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Category: Accident Reports,


  • Looks more like a King Air– maybe a US Army C-12.

    That’s clearly a P&W PT-6 in the wreckage in the foreground.

  • There were two family friends of mine on that airplane, a brother and sister, they were headed back to Chicago, and were happy to get a new job in Anchorage. Their father, also, two years later died of a heart attack. Very sad, but thank you for recognizing this. Thank You.

  • Hi Andrew,

    it’s always important to remember that there’s a human loss when looking at accident reports. Thank you for the reminder.

  • The picture above is of a Alaska National Guard C-12 that crashed a very short distance from the Alaska Airlines crash in 1971. The C-12 crash happened in the mid 90’s if I remember correctly, and killed the commander of the Alaska national guard and his aide’s.
    The C-12 crash happened under similar circumstances as the AK airlines crash.
    Here is a link to a picture of the Alaska Airlines crash near teardrop lake in the Chilkat mountain range.,-ak-jet-crash,-sept-1971?page=0%2C1

  • Matt, thank you. I was wondering whether to leave the (wrong) photo up there but it seemed unreasonable to remove it leaving the comments out of context. Thanks and I’ve added a note to the main post asking people to see your comment.

  • 46th Anniversary of Flight 1866 My wife Faye & I had tickets for over 2-weeks for this flight back to Seattle. Friday night we decided to take the Friday night red-eye and surprise every one waiting for us the next morning. The flight was full with no survivors (111) and 2- people literally took our place. RIP to those on the flight.

      • Just a minor correction, in that Jim Carson was the Flight Engineer. The flight did not carry a navigator, none was needed for the domestic route flying. As I write this on Jan. 6, 2024, I am engaged with a committee of Alaska Airlines employees that were there and or were involved in the investigation. We have uncovered additional information and hope to publish by this Spring.

  • The origin of that 45⁰ error is still a bit of a mystery. From a 2016 article in the Juneau Empire:

    After the NTSB report failed to come up with an adequate explanation for the bent beam, Alaska Airlines employees found the Sisters Island beacon wasn’t set up according to the FAA’s own standards, Serling wrote in his book.

    Furthermore, while conducting their own experiments, the airline employees found that the beacon could send flawed signals on the rare days when Icy Strait was millpond-smooth. On those days, the beacon’s radio signals could suffer from interference and rotate the signal counter-clockwise, just as experienced by Flight 1866.

    The results of the airline employees’ experiments were not be duplicated by the FAA’s own tests, and the federal agency continues to state in its own official history that “the origin or nature of the misleading navigational information could not be determined.”
    The referenced book is “Character and Characters”, an oral history of Alaska Airlines by Robert Serling.

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