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Skagway plane crash kills six, 1981

Arctic & Northern Aviation

The Whitehorse Star - Wednesday, August 12, 1981


    SKAGWAY - Five tourists and a pilot have been killed in the flaming crash last night of a Skagway Air Services Piper Cherokee.

    The plane crashed into a mountainside about 1,200 metres above the U.S. customs post, which is on the Klondike Highway about 24 kilometres north of Skagway.

    Alaska state troopers in a helicopter from Juneau, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter from Sitka and a helicopter temporarily based in the nearby Fraser, B.C. Canada Customs station were at the scene last night but withdrew because of darkness, after confirming everyone on board was dead. The bodies were still on the mountain this morning but were to be removed by police and coast guard today and flown to Juneau.

    Skagway police say all five of the tourists have now been identified. The names of two Illinois tourists are not being released pending notification of kin. The five were on an organized tour.

    Dead are Edith Cilley of Hartford, Conn. and Mr. and Mrs. William Randolph of Placerville, Calif.

    The pilot of the single-engine aircraft was also killed. Steven Lewis was a long- time Skagway resident who has worked as a White Pass railway engineer. He was a flight instructor and had been working for Skagway Air Service for three years.

    "We have an investigator from the NSTB (National Transportation Safety Board) en route from Anchorage," said Skagway police chief Jim Hester.

    The plane was noticed missing within 15-20 minutes of the crash, which is believed to have occurred at 7:15 p.m. Two Skagway Air Services planes had taken off close together for the 45-minute aerial "gold rush tour." They had flown up through the Chilkoot Pass and were returning to Skagway via the White Pass, the route of the railway and the Klondike Highway.

    When the first plane landed and the other did not turn up, Skagway Air Services planes left to search for the missing plane. Tuning into the emergency aviation frequency, the searchers picked up an automatic crash device, an emergency locator transmitter, sending off a beep. They quickly spotted the wreckage and notified police and the Coast Guard.

    Other pilots in the area said they had not picked up any emergency radio signals and have no idea what caused the crash.

    The registration of the Piper PA-32 Cherokee Six was N8224Q.

    "Troopers, Juneau firefighters and U.S. Coast Guard crewmen flew to the scene in helicopters shortly after the crash. Troopers said a quick search of the area confirmed there were no survivors. A crew and helicopter from Sitka Coast Guard Air Station were the first on the scene following the accident. They were followed shortly by state troopers in a helicopter. The air station had received a call at about 8 p.m. reporting the crash." (The Daily Sentinel, Sitka)

    The other two victims of the crash were Verneil and Phyllis Hohenboken of Hillsdale, Illinois (The Daily Dispatch, Moline, Illinois, August 13, 1981).

    Weather and visibility were reported to be good at the time of the crash. The initial investigation failed to turn up any solid evidence of mechanical failure. The final NTSB report summary can be read here.

    Francis Steven Lewis, 37 years old, was originally from Plainfield, Vermont. As well as flying part-time for Skagway Air Services, he operated his own flight instruction school. He was buried at the Skagway Cemetery.

    Skagway Air Services was founded in 1964 by Ben Lingle, Eric Selmer, and Gil Meroney. In 2007, sole owner Ben Lingle closed the business, which had 10 aircraft at that point.