People fly for all sorts of reasons, including the pure joy of it, but one of the more common is the desire to travel quickly and efficiently. Personal aviation offers the prospect of significant time savings to destinations that aren’t within convenient driving distance or close to major airline hubs. In remote parts of the country, light aircraft may be the only practical way of getting there at all. However, the crucial first step toward saving that time is often to slow down. Hurry tends to be counterproductive in most activities. In flight, it can be downright lethal.
About 7:40 p.m. on July 23, 2011, a Cessna 182P touched down at the Juneau (Alaska) International Airport at the end of an IFR flight from Anchorage. The pilot and his wife were in the process of moving from Anchorage to Hoonah, about 31 nautical miles southwest of Juneau, and she had intended to return to Anchorage from Juneau on Alaska Airlines’ last flight of the day. Unfortunately, they wound up running late, landing just as her airline flight departed. She rebooked her reservation for the next morning on a flight scheduled for 7:28 a.m. and they spent the night in Hoonah.
According to flight-track data retrieved from two portable GPS units, the 182 took off from Hoonah at 6:28 a.m. The weather wasn’t bad for the southern Alaska coast: 3,500-foot overcast at Hoonah, with 10 miles visibility but only a two-degree-Celsius temperature/dew point spread. It was a little lower at Juneau, with a broken layer at 2,800 feet below a 3,600-foot overcast, 5 miles visibility in light rain and mist, and temperature equal to the dew point. According to witness reports, off to the south and southeast it was lower still.
Fifteen minutes after takeoff, the pilot contacted the tower at Juneau International and reported that he was 10 miles to the southwest. The tower controller instructed him to report four miles out; a moment later the faint sound of an ELT became audible on the emergency frequency of 121.5 MHz. An Alert Notice was issued at 7:57 a.m., almost an hour and a quarter after that one radio contact, but poor weather kept searchers from finding the first fragments of the airplane until 5 p.m. The main wreckage (including the fuselage) wasn’t found until noon the next day. The initial impact, near the top of a 3,100-foot hill near the north end of Douglas Island, was not survivable.
The area around Juneau is a mixture of open water, narrow fjords, and steep mountains. The direct route from Hoonah to Juneau International is mostly over water, but also crosses the Mansfield Peninsula, where Robert Barron Peak tops out at 3,475 feet msl. The peak is a little south of the direct Hoonah-to-Juneau flight path, but the GPS data showed the airplane climbing to cross it at a GPS-estimated altitude of 3,619 feet, just 144 feet above the hilltop. It continued straight to the accident site, five miles south-southeast of the airport. By this time, the Skylane was significantly off course to the south.
Why? The pilot may or may not have been new to the area—the NTSB reports don’t specify—and the weather might have been marginal to fly by pure pilotage, navigating around the hills on the north end of the peninsula and turning east toward the airport. But as mentioned earlier, two different handheld GPS units were found in the wreckage. The newer one held a pre-stored flight plan from Hoonah to Juneau—but not the international airport. The airport code entered was 5Z1, the Juneau Harbor Seaplane Base, which lies on the Gastineau Channel, six miles south-southeast of the international airport … and five miles on the other side of the hill that the Skylane hit. The NTSB confirmed that the accident site lay on the direct route from Hoonah to Juneau Harbor.
Given that the 182 was not equipped with floats—not to mention that the seaplane base wasn’t where his wife needed to catch her flight—it’s a pretty good bet that this wasn’t the pilot’s intended destination. It’s not clear how its identifier got into the flight plan, but it’s easy to believe that after missing one connection, and then leaving with barely an hour to catch the next, he might have been preoccupied with getting there as quickly as possible. Making sure that “there” was where he thought it was, and that he had enough clearance to cross the terrain in between, may have been details that got lost in the hustle. Unfortunately, when maneuvering under low ceilings around higher terrain, that’s the kind of detail that matters.