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.
It wasn’t a high-speed crash, as Joachim had already been slowing down, but it was a hard one. The front landing gear in the nose broke off with the first impact and the plane took a bounce. On the second impact something up front — the cowling, the nose or spinner, Joachim figures — drug on the ground for about 10 feet before the plane finally flipped all the way over, landing with the windshield in a glacial stream draining to the lake about three miles away.
As quickly as it had happened, it also didn’t take long to assess everyone’s condition.
“Not a hair on our head. Nobody was hurt,” Joachim said.
Next question, after Joachim’s if everybody was OK, was from the passengers — “What do we do now?”
It was about 8 p.m. Joachim checked the Emergency Locator Transmitter and his SPOT GPS unit, and they hauled all the emergency gear and food out of the plane.
“We weren’t worried about running out of light, and we definitely weren’t worried about the bear anymore — it was long gone. We saw what we had (food, gear, sleeping bag and blankets). “We could have been there a couple of days and been fine,” he said.
They made a fire and checked their cellphones to see if they had reception. Both Joachim’s and Levi’s phones had been loose during the crash and ended up dunked in the silty glacial water. Logan’s phone had been in his pocket. He started hiking toward the lake to see if he could get service. About a mile away from the wreckage he did, and called his dad, who called the Alaska State Troopers.
Troopers relayed the situation to the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center, which requested assistance from the Alaska Air National Guard. The Air Guard sent an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson with a team of Guardian Angel rescuers from the 212th Rescue Squadron, according to a press release from the Air Guard.
The blue plane was difficult to see among the gray glacial moraine, but the crew spotted the fire and from that found the wreckage.
“Those guys were super awesome, just solid guys. Glad to see us walking. They took a quick assessment of us and they were like, ‘You guys were in a plane crash?’ The looks on their faces, they couldn’t believe it. You look at the plane and the condition of it and you think there had to be somebody hurt, and we were just looking back at them with no explanation, just, ‘Everybody’s fine,’” Joachim said.
The plane did not fare so well. The rear of the plane is undamaged, but the front is fitting of any thesaurus entry for mangled — crumpled, crushed, smashed, destroyed.
“It’s cracked up. She’s not straight anymore. She’s no longer airworthy,” Joachim said.
The survivors walked onto the helo and were flown to Central Peninsula Hospital, where they met another round of incredulous, well-intentioned but unneeded assistance. The men were released without treatment at about 11 p.m., to be interviewed by troopers and, later, investigators from the National Traffic Safety Board, which determined the crash was an accident.
“There was a huge group of people there to receive us. They had the same look on their faces as the guys on the helicopter, ‘So where are the hurt people?’ We were like, ‘Well, we’re good to go,’” Joachim said.
Lack of engine power
In retrospect, Joachim thinks the problem was ice buildup in the carburetor choking out the engine, which can occur when engine power is reduced, airflow is restricted and ambient heat is lessened, such as during descents. It can occur in myriad conditions — it doesn’t have to be below freezing for icing to be a problem. Joachim is aware of the threat, as well as the precautions to take to avoid or remedy it. But he didn’t notice he was lacking engine power until he was already down to 200 feet, and at that point he didn’t have time for solutions, only to look for the best possible spot to try to land.
“When an airplane goes to stall, especially a Cessna, it has this really loud whining noise. But the stall horn didn’t even have the opportunity to go off, but I noticed my airspeed was low and it gave a tiny little buzz,” he said. “I just stuffed the stick forward and gained a little air speed before impact, just like a normal flare on a landing, but it was a hard impact. We weren’t planning to land, it was just all of a sudden — you’re landing, you’re coming down.”
He’d bought the plane three years ago and said he’s keen on keeping up maintenance, and that the engine, made by Continental, hadn’t had a single mechanical problem.
“It’s a real strong runner, the motor is. It’s an 0-470-R. The R, they all say, stands for reliable. The motors, everybody knows, is one of the most reliable 0-470s they made,” Joachim said.
He started flying in 2006 and got his license in 2007. He and his wife were living and teaching in Tyonek at the time — he teaches at Sterling Elementary now. He’s got over 100 hours in that plane, after having trained with Chip Versaw at the Alaska Flying Network.
“All those things reamed into me as a student played out, so pilot training is huge. It was less than a minute in my situation,” Joachim said.
He’s always thought of himself as a cautious pilot, nonflashy, an unaggressive, average-Joe flier, in a state with about six times as many pilots as the rest of the U.S.
“I’m not a high-profile person. I’m just one of the statistics in Alaska — I’m a guy with a pilot’s license. And so when you hear ‘plane crash’ it’s like everybody gets a little more sensitive about it,” he said.
As relieved as he is that his passengers were unharmed, he’s chagrined to have been in the situation in the first place.
“It’s embarrassing, you know? You can get into a car crash and nobody’s the wiser, but if it involves aviation — we’re a flying state and it’s a really big deal,” Joachim said. “You can’t ever be too careful. You need to stay on top of your game.”
There can be some pride taken, though, in facing the life-and-death litmus test. He didn’t panic. He didn’t give up. He and his passengers walked away.
“I flew the plane to the ground. The thing you always talk about in aviation is you’re flying it until it’s tied down, you don’t land and relax,” he said. “That was the quickest and only unplanned landing I’ve ever had. My big takeaway is I maybe let my guard down, but I flew it to the ground. I didn’t give up on it, and I think that’s why we’re here now.”
Inevitably with a crash, the flying community buzzes with speculation over what happened. Joachim said it’s been comforting to have other pilots, ones he greatly respects, pat him on the back for a safe landing.
“It was nice to hear that from those guys, to kind of get validated that I didn’t panic in a moment of duress, I didn’t lock the plane up and kill everybody,” he said.
“I’m not an aerobatics type of guy. I’m not a junky for speed. Flying is my one thing that I do that’s not man-powered. I ski, I run, I hike, I kayak, but I’m not a snowmachiner, I’m not a dirt biker, you know? I drive a Kia.”
Joachim will be limited to his Kia as a mechanical mode of transportation for now, as the plane is a loss. It took until Friday to do the necessary logistical planning and securing of permission and permits to retrieve the wreckage. It was in a nonmotorized area of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, so he needed a special use permit to fly back out Thursday to retrieve the plane’s radio and other valuables, with Soldotna pilot Shawn Holly, who volunteered to help.
By 8 a.m. Saturday his ducks — and a crowd of volunteers — were in a row, launching on a landing craft owned by Guff Sherman, another area pilot, from the Upper Skilak Boat Launch to retrieve the plane.
“Guff Sherman, with no hesitation, volunteered his whole day ferrying stuff back and forth to the upper landing. And I’d never met the guy. His whole day, whatever it is he normally does, he said, ‘Nope, I’ve got a landing craft, here it is,’” Joachim said.
They drove two four-wheelers towing snowmachine trailers out to the wreckage, disassembled it into lighter sections, loaded parts onto the trailers and towed the back section out on its own wheels.
The plane had about 30 gallons of aviation fuel in it when it crashed, but av gas evaporates quickly, so no spill remediation was done, Joachim said. The engine had 10 quarts of oil, but none of that spilled.
“You can’t even tell there was even a plane there,” he said.
Now the plane sits in his yard, a striking, but unnecessary reminder, as the experience — good parts and bad — isn’t one he will forget.
“What I’ve been impressed with is the community, from the government agencies to the local guys and people chipping in. I didn’t have to call and ask for anybody to come help, people just volunteered,” he said. “From the hospital to the troopers to the DEC and refuge guys and NTSB, they were all just really awesome, supportive, understanding, but everybody wants to know, ‘Were you doing the right thing?’
“I think I’m a little wiser and will be staying sharp and getting a little tighter things,” he said, for when — not if — he returns to the sky.
“I had to save up for this one. I’ll have to save up for my next one so it might be two or three years before I have another airplane, but I’m not not flying ever again,” he said. “I love flying. I’m not done flying, I feel like I’m just getting started. And this was a big learning thing for me, too. I feel really blessed and really fortunate to still be here.”