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Lost Trail plane crash investigation begins, pilot tentatively identified

By Kevin Maki, KECI Reporter, kmaki@keci.com
Published On: Aug 06 2014 06:40:21 AM MDT
Updated On: Jun 18 2014 10:44:03 PM MDT
DARBY, Mont. -

The Ravalli County Sheriff's Department has tentatively identified the pilot and aircraft he was flying when it crashed at the Lost Trail Ski Area parking lot late Tuesday afternoon. The man's name has not yet been released, but he was reportedly the only occupant of the twin-engine plane.

Debris from the crash was still strewn across the ski area's parking lot Wednesday morning, hours after the plane crashed.

"We believe now he was an out-of-state pilot and was bringing the plane to the Hamilton Airport," said Ravalli County Undersheriff Steve Holton.

The Sheriff's Department, the Hamilton Airport manager, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board arrived about noon Wednesday to begin the detailed job of documenting the crash.

The wreckage is in pieces.

NTSB  air safety investigator Larry Lewis came from Washington to start his preliminary investigation.

"We're going to take a quick look around at the topography," said Lewis. "We're going to talk to anybody we can find here when the accident occurred. We're going to survey the scene and photograph all the pieces and parts."

Investigators will see if all the major air frame components are still at the site.

Witnesses said they first saw the plane coming in from Idaho to the south, before it touched down in the parking lot.

They said "it was rotating in the air before it touched down," said Holton.

One witness said the plane dropped hard and flat, right out of the sky. They said it looked like flames engulfed it immediately.

People were at Lost Trail for a meeting Tuesday afternoon.

"That had cleared about 30 minutes prior to the crash," said Holton, "and from what we understood, the parking lot was full of cars at that point, but most of those had cleared out by the time the incident happened."

A pilot who owns a lodge about 12 air miles from Lost Trail said "atmospheric weather conditions Tuesday may not have been suitable for visual flying."

Tex Irwin owns Westfork Lodge, which has an airstrip. Irwin was waiting for guests coming by plane on Tuesday. He said one group coming south from the Plains and Thompson Falls area was delayed because of weather.

"Another group coming from the Challis-Salmon, Idaho area," said Irwin, reported bad weather.

"We were talking by telephone back and forth what their position down south was," said Irwin, "and what ours was at the lodge. And they finally -- which I think was wise -- canceled and diverted and went elsewhere.

Irwin said the weather was in flux Tuesday. It was sunny, rainy, snowy, cloudy and overcast, he said. "Mountain weather," he called it.

Weather is certainly a factor investigators will be looking at, but this investigation is just beginning. Officials will be scrutinizing all possibilities and combing through scores of pieces of evidence, before a cause is determined.

It could take time. A preliminary report is usually completed within a few months, in most cases. A final report can take up to a year in many cases.

The plane that crashed is a Grumman G-21, or "Goose." They can take off and land on water and dry land. The planes were used during World War II and that's when they adopted the nickname Goose.

The planes were first commissioned in 1937 by wealthy Long Island businessmen who wanted to fly from Long Island to New York City everyday to work on Wall Street.

Only about 365 were made, and estimates indicate fewer than 50 are currently airworthy. Most belong to collectors. They are pricey and rare.

We double checked federal crash reports on that kind of plane and found more than 60 in the last 50 years, including one that killed seven people in Vancouver, Canada, in 2006.