Investigators are trying to discover the cause of a plane crash Saturday night in Kasilof that killed two local men.
Pilot Brian Nolan, 69, and 57-year-old Peter Lahndt, both of Kasilof, died when Nolan’s Cessna 180 crashed into a stand of trees about 150 feet from Cohoe Loop Road, just inland from the bluff over Cook Inlet near the mouth of the Kasilof River. The plane immediately burst into flames. The crash was not survivable, according to an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
The plane went down around 8:11 p.m. Saturday at Mile 3.2 South Cohoe Loop Road, near Powder Keg Avenue. Dan Brown lives across the street and a little to the south of the crash site. He heard the plane throttle up, then crash a second or so later.
“Right after I heard him gun it I heard the impact on the ground. And so I knew it had crashed. It was just really, really quick. In fact at that time I was on the telephone. I said, ‘A plane just crashed I gotta go,’” Brown said.
Brown and two of his daughters jumped in his car and were at the crash site within about two minutes, where they could already see smoke rising from the trees.
“When I got there you could tell where the plane had clipped some spruce trees and where it had to have flipped over because it went into the round tail first from the direction is was coming from. So it hit trees, broke the tops of the trees off and then hit going backwards,” Brown said.
The plane was already on fire and the heat was too intense for Brown to get up to the wreckage.
“I couldn’t get close enough to it. I felt real bad about it (that) I couldn’t get in there. I couldn’t hear anything from them, there was no noise from anybody in the plane. I went around both sides of it trying to get into it and I couldn’t, it was too hot,” he said.
Within about 45 seconds the flames got even more intense.
He made about a 50-foot circle around the plane, looking to see if anyone had been thrown from the wreckage. By that time the plane’s tires burst into flames, and Brown started hearing explosions.
“I’m pretty sure they had quite a bit of ammunition on board. It sounded like a war down there,” he said.
He told his daughters to get back to the road while he made another wider loop around the plane, looking for survivors. As he did something hit him in the leg. It was smoldering and left a black mark, but didn’t penetrate the skin. Brown decided he’d better get back to the road, too.
Central Emergency Services and Alaska State Troopers from Soldotna responded to several reports of the downed plane and fire. Traffic on South Cohoe Loop was restricted until about 10:30 p.m. CES had the fire extinguished by about 8:50 p.m.
Brown said he didn’t think there was much danger of a wildfire taking off.
“The grass is all green-green, so it didn’t grow from there. The only thing that burned from it was the spruce trees that we have here, you have the lower branches on the trees that are kind of dead and the upper ones are green. It went up the trees and burned all the dead branches off but it didn’t go beyond that,” he said.
NTSB was contacted Saturday night and a team arrived on the scene around 1 a.m. Sunday. An investigator said Sunday that a witness reported the plane having a loss of engine power before it clipped some treetops and went down. Brown said he didn’t hear anything like that, just the whine of the engine throttling up and then the crash, but that’s not to say something mechanical didn’t happen.
Whatever the cause of the crash, Brown said he wishes there was something he could have done to save to the pilot and passenger.
“I was trying to think how could I have done any better and I don’t know how I could have done any better,” he said. “The only way I would have even had a remote chance is to be standing right there with a fire extinguisher when it hit the ground, maybe. But there was too much fire to put out with a fire extinguisher, and I would have had to have gloves and something to rip into the plane. There was no way to open it up. It was all upside down, and too much fire.”
The crash is still under investigation.