Three rescued after plane crash northwest of Port Alsworth

May 27, 2015

Cessna 206 with three onboard went down mid-flight after running out of fuel. The men used a PLB to notify authorities, and were rescued hours later.

Seldom is there good news following a downed plane in Alaska's mountains, but all three onboard a Cessna 206 that went down northwest of Port Alsworth Tuesday evening are fine, and were rescued in fairly short order. That the rescue went well may have much to do with the use of a Personal Locator Beacon, or PLB, which quickly alerted authorities to their distress and location. KDLG’s Dave Bendinger has more:

KDLG: A Cessna 206 ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing on top of a mountain roughly 20 miles northwest of Port Alsworth Tuesday evening. The three onboard received only minor injuries, and were located and rescued by early Wednesday morning.

Iliamna-based state trooper Joe Minnick was the first to fly looking for the downed aircraft, after their Personal Locator Beacon's signal had been received at NOAA’s SARSAT headquarters in Maryland. Minnick said the Cessna was enroute to Port Alsworth to refuel, but didn't make it.

"They were reportedly flying somewhere between 4500 and 5000 feet when their aircraft ran out of fuel," said Minnick. "The pilot opted for the mountaintop for his emergency landing."

Taking off from Iliamna Tuesday evening, Minnick did not have communication with the downed craft, but did have some information from the PLB, including a fairly accurate location.

Except for the late evening sun low on the horizon, Minnick said a lot went right. First, 61-year-old pilot Mark McNeill's landing could have been worse. The plane nosed over and ended up overturned, but the three onboard sustained only minor injuries. Additionally, McNeill's choice of a higher elevation made them much easier to find.

The weather was cooperative for a search and rescue, which it often isn’t.

Then there's the Personal Locator Beacon, which Minnick credits for the fast response and rescue. He said he was not able to pick up the aircraft's Emergency Locator Transmitter, or ELT, until he was enroute, and he doesn't think other aircraft would have either. 

"You know, in the mountainous terrain, I don't know if any of the normal air traffic that we have between Lake Clark, Nondalton, and Iliamna ... they might have picked up the ELT, they might not have. But certainly it was the PLB in this instance that got such a quick response," he said.

Minnick spotted the crash site and at least two of the passengers within two hours of the plane going down. Flying a state-owned Piper Saratoga, Minnick made a low pass by the downed aircraft, then flew back up to an altitude of 5000 feet to radio in the situation and location. That launched a rescue effort by the the Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson.

"They sent out an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter and a C-130 with Guardian Angel teams based out of JBER," said Minnick, who expressed his gratitude for RCC's quick cooperation.

Pilot McNeill, Talon Heying, 24, and Rocky McElveen, 64, were picked up and brought back to Iliamna just after 2:00 a.m. Wednesday. John Baechler offered lodging.

Reached by the Alaska Dispatch News this morning, McElveen said the three were on a supply run to a lodge he owns on the Holitna River, and he wasn't sure yet how the fuel miscalculation happened.

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.2200.