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Interior Alaska Piper plane crash kills 2 Australians

Ben Anderson

Two people are dead following a plane crash north of Fairbanks on Wednesday night, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The two were identified by Alaska State Troopers as 64-year-old pilot Stephen Knight and 60-year-old Gillian Knight of Queensland, Australia.

NTSB investigator Clint Johnson said that the plane, a Piper PA-32R-301, disappeared from radar just before 5 p.m. en route from Fort Yukon to Fairbanks.

The Civil Air Patrol was called in to search in the area where the plane disappeared. Wreckage was located about 40 miles north of Fairbanks, but a landing was impossible. Johnson described the terrain of the area where the plane went down as "mountainous, rolling hills."

The Air National Guard's 210th and 212th Rescue Squadrons were then deployed to the scene, and were able to confirm at least two bodies in the wreckage, but couldn't recover the victims due to the plane being on fire. Alaska State Troopers also confirmed the wreckage.

"From what I understand, the plane had made contact with the (air traffic control), had asked a question, and when (the tower) answered, there was no response and they noticed it had dropped off the radar," troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said.

Johnson said the plane was in the process of filing what's known as a "pop-up" Instrument Flight Rules Plan. That can mean the weather is worsening over the course of a flight and a pilot is switching from visual to instrumental navigation.

The plane was registered to a company in Palo Alto, Calif., LNP Saratoga Inc., which in turn had been leasing the aircraft for more than a decade to West Valley Flying Club, according to the company's owner, Lee Price.

The club, also based in California, offers numerous aircraft for rent to qualified pilots, according to their website.

"The club has both an excellent safety record and a top-notch maintenance department.  This means that your airplane is well looked after, and not likely to be involved in an accident or incident," the club's website says. 

Johnson said that the downed plane was traveling with at least one other aircraft, which the West Valley Flying Club confirmed. Chris Shaver, an NTSB investigator dispatched to the Interior city to visit the accident site, said two other planes were actually travelling with the crashed aircraft.

Investigators were unable to reach the crash site during the day Thursday, as thick fog and a low ceiling kept aircraft grounded. Shaver said that troopers may attempt a run to the site later Thursday.

Shaver had spoken with the occupants of the other two planes traveling with the Piper Saratoga. He said that the other pilots and passengers, also flying rented planes, made trips around North America together "every year or two" to do a flight, and had traveled from California to Alaska on this particular trip. He described all the pilots as "fairly experienced."

He said it wasn't clear yet if weather was a factor, since the other pilots weren't in communication with the Knights when their plane went down.

"There was a little bit of weather," Shaver said. "Some clouds, some light rain. They all took different routes, basically, so it’s a little tough to tell exactly what was going on in the area where the accident occurred."

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com