Goat Mountain Plane Crash
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Before 5 p.m. on Aug. 4, a four-seat plane crashed near the top of a ridge on Goat Mountain. People in Girdwood could see a plume of black smoke rising in the north end of the upper valley.
Shortly after, Alaska State Troopers (AST) received reports of a plane crash at around 5,000 feet on the mountain. Four men died in the crash, including three from Girdwood. As of press time, their identities have not been officially confirmed.
The Gazette spoke to Deb Essex, Alpine Air Co-owner, and Mark Miraglia, Alaska Mountain Rescue Group’s Board Vice Chairman and Technical Committee Chairman, to understand accident response and recovery.
“We received a phone call that there was a significant event north in the valley,” Essex said. “People could see black smoke. Then the calls just kept coming in. People were driving to the hangar because there were rumors there was a helicopter crash. People were alerting us in case we could help.”
Alpine Air’s Chief Pilot Andy Wallace and Essex grabbed fire extinguishers as Girdwood Volunteer Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief Manch Garhart arrived at the hangar. They began the short flight to Goat Mtn., around five minutes after receiving notification, according to Essex.
“There was an aircraft that had crashed on the side of the hill that was still on fire. We weren’t in the air very long,” Essex said.
Miraglia, with AMRG since 1994, has been heavily invested in technical rope rescues since the early 2000s. He concisely explained the technical details of the Goat Mtn. recovery, which was not conducted until two days after the crash.
Miraglia said AST did not notify AMRG until 4:20 p.m. on Mon., which it needs before going on a rescue or recovery mission. Miraglia did not know why there was a delay. After the notification, he and others were up late into the night planning the recovery, getting information and gathering equipment.
AMRG’s initial information came from the PJs (pararescuemen) who had flown to the scene in a Pave Hawk and verified there were no survivors.
“He had given us information that the aircraft was approximately 300 feet below the ridge line and that there was a ramp that led down from the side traversing across that could have been close to 700 feet long. We called in a request to the troopers to see if there was an Army/[National]Guard Black Hawk with hoist capabilities available because it would have been much simpler to hoist out of the scene rather than raise 300 feet up the slope for four operations. That would have taken hours.”
Miraglia lifted off to the scene around 1:20 p.m. on Wed. With a hoist helicopter unavailable, he was planning for a long operation with a lot of rope work. He flew in first to assess the scene for his team and recognized the recovery was not going to be as difficult as he had anticipated.
“I wasn’t able to get very much at the time because gusty winds blew us off the face,” Miraglia said. “Once we landed and I walked up on the ridgeline, I realized, ‘This isn’t that far at all.’ The aircraft was about 70 feet below the ridgeline. There was a vertical gully coming up. It ranged about 70 feet long. The slope angle was anywhere 40 to 50 degrees at the top, so it was a pretty simple raising operation.”
AMRG used a solidly placed, large boulder about five feet in diameter as an anchor just over the ridge from the scene and built a raising system as responders and gear arrived with AST’s Helo 2. The pilot faced a number of challenges and was unhappy with the landing zone (LZ) 400 feet away.
“It was the only good spot that could get us fairly close to the accident scene,” Miraglia said. “The issue was winds because the slope dropped away. He was coming in with a lot of terrain underneath him, settling down on this small grassy area. One to two feet of the skids are hanging off of in air. The tail is off over in air. When it’s time for him to take off, he likes to be able to go forward into the wind. He couldn’t do that. He had to lift up, back up maybe 20 feet and then veer around to the right, gain altitude and get out of there.”
The tricky landings continued for the helicopter pilot from Fairbanks. Miraglia said the pilot did an excellent job flying into the LZ about 12 times, but wind conditions picked up as the operation was near its finish.
“The third landing before he got everybody off of the mountain, he told us we needed to pick a new LZ because the winds were swirling,” Miraglia said. “They were gusting on him. He was having difficulty coming in and holding power on the ground to get everybody loaded.”
Then the winds receded enough to where the pilot was willing to land in the LZ. If not, Miraglia would have needed to find a suitable LZ higher up and haul gear further uphill. He said the wind was gusting up to 25 mph and the direction shifted about 160 degrees at one point.
Miraglia was complimentary of his crew and their efforts during the recovery.
“I really appreciate all of the hard work rescue members put in to go ahead and do this,” Miraglia said. “The Tern Lake mission was a difficult one for the airplane crash down there, with the recovery of three deceased. This one is four [deceased]. We’ve got a lot of young people that haven’t had to do body recoveries before, and it can be really taxing emotionally on people,” he explained.
“That’s the thing we always have to deal with like fire fighters have to when they go in burning houses and such and the impacts it has on the rescuers. I’m really happy that we’ve got a good team, a lot of good people willing to set aside whatever they are doing and help rescue people preferably or just to try to bring some closure to folks who have lost their lives out in the backcountry.”