By Jenny Neyman
When Soldotna private pilot Donny Joachim and his three passengers spotted a black bear in the gravely moraine at the foot of Skilak Glacier on April 29, it was the topper of a gorgeous spring flight they thought couldn’t get much better.
In less time than it takes to deal a deck of cards it turned into the worst aviation experience they’ve had, and hopefully will ever have, as they luckily all walked away from the crash that soon happened.
One second Joachim’s Cessna 172 was circling around the black bear, having just glided down Skilak Glacier during a flight-seeing trip from Soldotna up over the Harding Icefield. The next, he hit the throttle, with no response. Seconds after that he was telling his passengers to brace for impact.
“I didn’t have that much reaction time. It was like, ‘This is happening, and it’s imminent, it’s now,’” Joachim said.
Joachim, 37, who lives out Funny River Road, took off from the Soldotna Airport about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, taking two friends, Levi, 25, and Logan Sutton, 22, of Soldotna, and their visiting cousin, Reid Nelson, 19, of Cokato, Minnesota, up to sight see.
“I was showing a kid Alaska from the air. We live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, and I’m lucky to be able fly. I’ve taken loads up people up on that same flight,” Joachim said.
They headed to the Harding Icefield, climbing to 7,000 feet for views of the eastern peninsula and Prince William Sound beyond. Joachim headed down Skilak Glacier, traveling about 130 knots, descending to about 500 feet when they spotted the bear. He circled down to about 200 feet for a better look, slowing to about 60 mph (about 52 knots). Joachim made a pass, then hit the throttle to climb back up and out of the glacial valley, resulting in nothing but a sinking feeling to go with the quickly sinking plane.
“I put in power and there was just nothing — it didn’t climb, it just continued to descend. I pulled it out, put it back in, went through my emergency checklist and told the boys, ‘We’re gonna crash land.’ They thought I was joking, and I wasn’t. We continued descending, they braced themselves, we hit the ground and that was it,” Joachim said.