Moose Hunt Crash, Bethel Alaska

24 Nov 17 One Comment

This video is from an accident in September 2015 but it only just recently has come to my attention. As usual, I couldn’t resist trying to find out as much as I could about the incident. You already know I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

The aircraft, registration N910SP, is a Helio H-395 Super Courier operated by Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures. On the 18th of December in 2015, it crashed after departing from a lake near Bethel, Alaska.

As you can see, the take-off run across the lake was uneventful, although it’s hard to make much sense of anything from the backseat in letter-box view. Certainly, it’s clear that they were climbing away slowly over the shore when the Helio appears to fly into the tree tops and tumble out of control to the ground.

Amazingly, everyone walked away, a testament to the crash characteristics of the Helio.

When reading a transcription from an accident report, I often mentally fill in the [expletives] with what I think the pilots may have said at that moment. The video showing the actual conversation was an eye opener: I have to admit that one that had not ever occurred to me was: “Holy ratshit!”

The aircraft after the crash
The aircraft after the crash

Here in the pilot’s own words is the sequence of events.

NTSB Docket: Pilot/Operator Aircraft Accident Report

Approximately 15:15 local time I circled the lake for wind direction and landing conditions and conducted a landing to the lake. I taxied to the location of the clients and loaded the plane starting with 150 pounds of their personal baggage and left the camping gear for a later pickup. The clients were loaded next with two in the middle row of seats and one in the right front seat. After they were loaded and secured I pushed the plane out and let it sail back enough to start and get turned around. I back taxied the plane and once it was turned into the wind(right quartering approximately 30 degrees) the takeoff was initiated around 15:35. The plane got on step and I then turned it straight into the wind and lifted off the water in around 1200 feet. Once it broke water and the plane was gaining airspeed the climb was initiated.

I was around 30-50 feet above the tree line and encountered a downdraft and lost 30-50 feet of altitude. After losing the altitude one of the floats struck the top of a tree thence pulling the plane down into the trees. The plane fell straight down upright and I asked if everyone was ok and proceeded to secure the plane. Once secured the airplane was evacuated and looked over to make sure there was no leaking fuel or trees that would cause harm, the plane was double checked that it was secure and the baggage was unloaded to gain access to a satellite phone. I made appropriate calls to the management and got the process going. There was no visible injury to the clients or myself. This was the second trip of the day I had made into the lake. Wind speed was the same with the direction had moved from more northerly to north westerly. The first trip was a moose on board that was brought back to Bethel. The flight plan was to leave Bethel, transport people to a lake 80 miles NW of Bethel, fly 25 miles east to the lake where the accident occurred and return to Bethel.

View of substantial damage to elevator
View of substantial damage to elevator

I also discovered that the aircraft has been in two crashes before, showing the hazards of bush flying.

2006-09-12
THE PILOT ATTEMPTED A TAKEOFF FROM A CONFINED AREA OF THE IDITIROD RIVER. DURING THE TAKEOFF RUN HE DETERMINED THAT HE WOULD NOT BE AIRBORNE PRIOR TO A SHARP TURN IN THE RIVER. HE ABORTED THE TAKEOFF AND RAN AGROUND ON THE RIVER BANK.

1998-07-20

ON JULY 20, 1998, N910SP, A HELIO H395, OPERATED BY INLAND AVIATION DEPARTED HANGAR LAKE AT BETHEL, ALASKA. UPON REACHING 50′ ALTITUDE, THE PILOT RETRACTED THE FLAPS. AT THAT TIME THE AIRCRAFT LOST LIFT AND LANDED IN LITTLE HANGAR LAKE. THE AIRCRAFT CAME TO REST WITH THE LEFT WING AND LEFT EMPONAGE PARTLY SUBMERGED. THE AIRCRAFT WAS OVER LOADED AND OUT OF C/G. THE CARGO WAS NOT TIED DOWN.

There’s a very interesting discussion group for Helio owners and enthusiasts which discusses the incident. Unfortunately, the group registration system seems to be broken, so I couldn’t take part, but feelings are very much mixed as to what happened on this flight, ranging from overweight to the slats never retracting. One points out that the aircraft could take 120 gallons of fuel and only had tanks for 60 gallons, so couldn’t have been overloaded. There was also a sense of disappointment that the NTSB couldn’t be bothered to attend for the investigation but relied on the pilot report above along with documentation regarding the weight and balance.

The NTSB probable cause was determined to be:

The pilot’s failure to maintain a positive climb rate during takeoff initial climb, resulting in an uncontrolled descent and collision with trees and terrain.

My favourite comment on the crash video:

Half expected these dudes to push it back in the water and try again but I see they went for plan B: Jack Daniels. Bet they wish they had a bigger bottle.

You know, if I were climbing out of that aircraft with no bones broken, I sure would be glad for a drink.

Coincidentally around the same time, Renfro Alaskan Adventures made headlines but for a very different incident.

A reality TV celebrity out on a bear hunt accidentally shot a second bear while finishing off the first, when she only had a tag for one bear. This is apparently a minor offence if reported but the woman and her guide(s) decided to cover it up. The operator flew out to drop off a second, backdated, bear tag to the location in order to bag and tag the second bear.

“Troopers: Outdoor Channel star helped cover up illegal Alaska bear kill” in the Anchorage Daily News:

Both of Vail’s guides were also charged in the case. Master guide Michael “Wade” Renfro, 46 — the contracting registered guide for the hunt and operator of Bethel-based Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures — and Renfro’s assistant guide Joseph Andrew Miller, 45, were each charged with failing to report a hunting violation and committing, aiding or allowing a violation. Renfro was also charged with second-degree unsworn falsification.

“(I)nvestigation showed that Theresa Vail had taken a brown/grizzly bear without a tag, and that registered guide Renfro obtained a locking tag under false pretense and then falsified paperwork to support and claim that the animal was taken lawfully,” troopers wrote in the dispatch. “Guide Miller and client Vail were accomplice to these actions.”

Theresa Vail pleaded guilty and, as of the last update in the Anchorage Daily News, the case against the two guides was still continuing, although it seems like it must have resolved by now.

The aircraft itself has since been salvaged and, in September of this year, it was sold to a new owner in Wasilla, Alaska.

And with that, I have an excuse to tell my favourite Alaskan moose hunting joke.


Two brothers hired a bush pilot to fly them into the Alaskan wilderness to go hunting. They were lucky enough to have bagged two great big moose.

However, the pilot didn’t want to take the carcasses back. “We’ll be overloaded, what with you and all your gear. I can take back one moose but not both.”

“Aw, c’mon. I thought Alaskan bush pilots could fly in and out of anywhere!”

The other brother chimed in. “Yeah, last year we shot two just as big as these and the pilot let us take them both, and that was in exactly the same plane!”

The bush pilot didn’t want to be outdone and agreed to take both moose. However, the little plane couldn’t take the load and crashed into the woods.

The two brothers climbed out of the wreckage and looked around.

“Any idea where we are?”

“Yep,” said the other brother. “I reckon we’re pretty close to where we crashed last year!”


See you next week.

One Comment

  • There was also a sense of disappointment that the NTSB couldn’t be bothered to attend for the investigation

    Presumably because (1) Nobody was hurt, (2) Nobody was wondering (or arguing about) what happened, and (3) The crash was “out in the middle of nowhere”.

    (Mind you, I don’t actually know just how isolated that site is, but given it’s hunting territory in Alaska, I suspect any potential investigators can’t just hop in the car and drive over.)

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