Alaskan Bush Pilot’s Life and Death Decisions Saves Four Crash Victims

By Robert Mark on January 7th, 2008

A Piper Navajo Chieftain crashed just after takeoff Saturday into the icy waters off Kodiak Island Airport about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage. PA-31Initial reports indicate the left nose baggage door on the aircraft opened up right after liftoff. Six people, including the pilot, were killed in the crash.

(photo courtesy Tom Lowther)

Miraculously however, four passengers survived the frigid 35 degree waters after being rescued by the pilot of a nearby floatplane, a de Havilland Beaver. Dean Andrew, owner of Andrew Airways based in the nearby town of Kodiak was just preparing for takeoff from the company’s maintenance base at Kodiak Airport at the time of the crash. Andrew Airway

I don’t know Dean and have only spoken to him once briefly by phone on Monday night when I called to say thanks to a guy who was doing what all of us aviators would have done in a similar situation … turn a crisis into a chance for some to live. I have many hours in the left seat of a Navajo so this crash made a profound impact on me.

Andrew told me, “I haven’t slept much since Saturday although I did get a little more sleep last night. I keep going over this whole thing again and again in my mind wondering what else I should have done to help get those other people out.” Early reports say the Coast Guard needed almost two hours on site after the crash to extricate the victims from the wreckage.

I asked Dean Andrew what he remembered about the scene. “I heard the distress call on the tower frequency because I was just getting ready to takeoff myself,” he said. “After the crash, I flew just a few feet off the water to where the tower controller told me he’d seen the aircraft hit. I had to land downwind. The swells were pretty high since the wind must have been about 30 miles an hour. That’s when I saw two people standing waist deep in the water on a piece of wreckage.”

The decisions came pretty fast after this point.

“Just as I landed, I saw another victim a little further away than the first two who looked like he was about to slip under so I went to him first. I shut down the engine and ran out on the float to pull him aboard before we started up and went back for the other two. They were hurt pretty badly but managed to pull themselves on the float as I taxied close. I had to turn into the wind with the engine running to stay over the crash site.”

Seconds later Andrew helped bring a fourth badly hurt passenger into the cabin of the old airplane. And that’s when things really got crazy for the Beaver pilot. “The people in my airplane were yelling hysterically about the other people still trapped in the fuselage beneath the water. I thought maybe I should dive in to try and rescue more of them. But I saw no signs of life in the wreckage beneath me and also knew that I couldn’t leave those people alone in my airplane or they might die too.”

This kind of life and death decision is what we all train for. It’s also the kind of decision we hope we never have to make.

I said thanks again to Dean Andrew and promised to call when I made it to Alaska on vacation some day. I had to take a couple of deep breaths after I hung up though.

Although we pilots are trained to think quickly, even we forget sometimes that it might have been us in the water or left stranded on the side of some mountain somewhere waiting for help from folks like Dean who act first and think later. Thank God they do. Why not send Dean an e-mail at and add your thanks for a job well done.

I can only hope that if I’m the one who goes in next time, someone like him will be there to yank my sorry butt out of the water as well as my passengers.

Thanks Dean.

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3 Responses to “Alaskan Bush Pilot’s Life and Death Decisions Saves Four Crash Victims”

  1. Aviation Marketing Intelligence » Blog Archive » Aviation Heroism Says:

    […] receiving his occasional aviation nuggets. None to date, captured my attention more than this story – since it is a true human story of […]

  2. Brian Lusk Says:

    Wow, Rob,
    That is quite a story.

  3. FAA’s Bobby Sturgell Needs to Check His Voicemail … Now - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinon Says:

    […] as a pilot and a former controller, today’s Mayday trumps everything, much like we saw an Alaskan bush pilot save four people on Saturday. When someone calls for help, you dive in help and ask questions […]

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