On August 5, 2021, a de Havilland Beaver floatplane operated by commercial air tour operator, Southeast Aviation, crashed near Misty Fjords National Monument, along southern Alaska’s mountainous Pacific Coast/island region near Ketchikan. Reports are that the five passengers killed in the crash were passengers on a Holland America Line Alaska cruise that originated in Seattle. While their cruise ship was docked in Ketchikan, the passengers took one of the numerous commercial float plane sightseeing tours offered to cruise-ship passengers while docked in Ketchikan, and usually sold through, or coordinated with, the cruise line.
We have handled (and are currently handling) numerous floatplane crashes in the Pacific Northwest, including Washington, Canada, and Alaska, including crashes involving flightseeing excursions from Holland America Line ships. Unfortunately, these crashes all have a lot in common:
In July and August 2007 there were two crashes of floatplane sightseeing tours taken as day excursions by cruise ship passengers docked in Ketchikan. In July of 2007, four passengers onboard a cruise ship tour of Alaska operated by Princess Cruise Lines took one of the many day-excursion float plane tours of Misty Fjords and the Ketchikan region offered to cruise ship passengers. Those passengers were killed when their plane crashed into the mountainous terrain of Misty Fjords.
About 3 weeks later, another Ketchikan sightseeing de Havilland Beaver float plane, on a 2-hour bear viewing flight, crashed into terrain killing six of its cruise ship passengers.
In the 2007 Misty Fjords crash, the de Havilland Beaver floatplane pilot continued the flight into deteriorating weather and visibility conditions, and ultimately crashed after encountering a “wall of weather” and trying too late to turn back. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) blamed the crash on poor decision making by the floatplane tour pilot and inadequate FAA oversight of the float plane tour company.
The NTSB noted at that time that there had been an explosion in cruise ship traffic and passengers in Ketchikan, and in commercial air tour operators offering them day-excursion float plane rides of Misty Fjords and the surrounding region. Concerns were raised at that time about the safety of these commercial floatplane tour operators, including a complaint to the FAA by a local charter boat captain who frequently saw tour planes operating in unsafe weather and visibility conditions, who was quoted as saying that “they all do it, and it was just a matter of time before an accident happened.”
What many of the passengers on cruises along the mountainous and island-rich region along the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska, between Seattle and Juneau, may not know, is that this region, notorious for rapidly changing weather and visibility conditions, and treacherous terrain and sudden changes in ground elevation, can be particularly challenging for aircraft. At the same time, much of the region can only be viewed, or is best viewed, from the air; and commercial air tour operations are immensely popular and lucrative.
There have been, unfortunately, far too many crashes, for far too many years, of aircraft operated by commercial air tour companies that fail to take safety seriously and push the limits in poor or deteriorating weather/visibility conditions.
Following the 2007 Ketchikan crashes the NTSB, citing these and other commercial air tour crashes in the region, issued four safety recommendations to the FAA intended to address inadequacies in weather information, improve pilot training for flying in the challenging environment of this region, and to improve FAA oversight of these air tour operators. (http://www.ntsb.gov/Recs/letters/2008/A08_59_62.pdf).
Unfortunately, and tragically, commercial air tour crashes in the Alaska/British Columbia Pacific Coast island/mountain region have continued to occur with alarming frequency and for entirely preventable reasons, including:
- In November 2009 a de Havilland Beaver floatplane operated by Seair Seaplanes stalled and crashed after takeoff from Lyall harbor on Saturna Island, British Columbia, killing six. Investigation found that the stall warning system had been modified so as not to provide an audible stall warning.
- On June 25, 2015, N270PA, a de Havilland Otter floatplane operated by Promech Air crashed into a mountain near Ketchikan Alaska after flying into poor weather/visibility conditions which obscured the rising terrain. The eight passengers, who were Holland America Line cruise passengers docked at Ketchikan, were all killed. In addition to the pilot, the NTSB blamed the floatplane tour operator for its deficient safety culture which tacitly endorsed flying in hazardous weather and failed to manage the risks associated with the competitive pressures affecting area air tour operators. Contributing factors in this crash included economic pressure on the floatplane operator to make it back in time for the passengers to reboard the ship prior to departure time.
- On July 10, 2018, N3952B, a de Havilland Otter floatplane operated by Taquan Air crashed into the side of a mountain in an area known as Jumbo Mountain. The floatplane was chartered by Steamboat Bay Fishing Club to transport customers from its remote location to Ketchikan, 80 miles away. Several of the passengers were seriously injured, but fortunately there were no fatalities. The crash was again caused by flying in poor weather/visibility conditions that obscured rising terrain and was the result of dangerous decisions by the pilot a poor safety culture by the air tour operator.
- On May 20, 2019 another de Haviland Beaver float plane operated by Taquan Air crashed on landing in Metlakatla harbor, South of Ketchikan, while flying to Ketchikan killing both people on board. The NTSB found that that Taquan Air’s inadequate operational controls resulted in their improper assignment of an insufficiently experienced pilot to a commuter seaplane flight.
- On July 26, 2019 a Seair Seaplanes flight carrying passengers from Vancouver to a remote Fishing Lodge on Hecate Island off the British Columbia coast crashed into the mountainous terrain of an island along the route after the operator and its pilot decided to proceed with a chartered flight with poor and deteriorating weather/visibility conditions along the route. The resulting crash into weather-obscured terrain killed three passengers and the pilot, and seriously injured the remaining five passengers.
All of the attorneys at our firm have substantial experience handling these types of cases. We have represented and are currently representing clients in several of the above crashes. We have previously represented clients against Holland America Line and the commercial floatplane tour operator in a similar fatal crash stemming from a sightseeing tour while docked at Ketchikan. We understand the safety culture issues that remain problematic in this industry and we know how to litigate against these companies.
There is the distinct possibility that any action brought against Holland America Line related to crashes on one of its shore excursions in Alaska, must be brought in federal court in Seattle, Washington, where our Washington office is located. However, attorneys in our office are also licensed to practice law in Alaska.