Last Sunday’s fatal seaplane crash off Whidbey Island stunned and mystified the area’s aviation community, for whom rugged de Havilland seaplanes have been a routine but exciting part of life here.
Seaplanes have been a part of the fabric of Seattle since Boeing’s first plane took off from Lake Union in 1916. Today, they provide regular shuttle and excursion service throughout the Pacific Northwest, from Seattle to the San Juan Islands, Alaska and British Columbia.
The path of Sunday’s flight – a normal take-off and climb with no significant weather conditions and about 18 minutes of routine flight before a sudden, steep plunge into the sea with no distress call – is, for now, unexplained and deeply troubling. .
Colleen Mondor, an author specializing in the investigation of air accidents in Alaska involving similar planes, said this pattern of flight before such a disastrous end is very strange.
“It feels like a stall,” Mondor said. “It’s weird to have 18 minutes of flight and all of a sudden have this kind of behavior with the plane.”
The aircraft was a de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter turboprop operated by Renton-based Friday Harbor Seaplanes.
Although this type of aircraft suffered a series of accidents in Alaska during its seven decades of service, these were almost exclusively related to poor pilot decisions in rough terrain and bad weather. The plane is considered safe.
“They are older. But they are really good planes,” Mondor said. “They have been flying for a long time for a good reason. They don’t fall from the sky.
Jay Todhunter, chief pilot at Kenmore Air, which runs a much larger seaplane operation than Friday Harbor Seaplanes, described the Otter as “a great plane to fly.”
“We all love it. It’s perfect for what we’re using it for. It’s a pretty docile plane, mostly easy to fly,” he said.
Todhunter said pilots from both companies knew each other. He had occasionally shared casual conversations on the Friday Harbor wharf with Jason Winters, the pilot of Sunday’s fatal flight.
“There’s a kind of community within the pilot group here,” Todhunter said. “It’s a tragedy and it’s in all of our thoughts right now.”
An Icon of Pacific Northwest Aviation
Seaplane flights in Seattle usually delight first-time travelers who get a fresh look from the air at the area’s breathtaking scenery, mountains, lakes, and ocean.
Kenmore Air flies both from Lake Union and a seaplane base in Kenmore at the north end of Lake Washington. Vancouver, British Columbia-based Harbor Air and charter company Seattle Seaplanes also fly to and from Lake Union, while Friday Harbor Seaplanes operates from a base at the southern tip of Lake Washington in Renton.
These commuter and tourist seaplanes are only allowed to fly in clear, daytime weather. They can only take off if the cloud ceiling is above 1,000 feet with visibility of at least two miles ahead of them. Fog means canceled flights. Winter flights are limited.
The most popular destinations are Friday Harbor, Orcas Island, Victoria, Vancouver and Desolation Sound in the northern part of the Strait of Georgia.
Many flyers are island residents traveling to Seattle and destinations beyond.
Additionally, Seattle Scenics Airline offers seaplane flights from Lake Washington to Renton and Kirkland. And there are thousands of private, non-commercial seaplane takeoffs and landings in this region every month.
Not all tourists and commuters on these flights. Seaplanes ferry professionals of all kinds to and from the islands, including whale biologists, doctors, architects, lawyers, boat technicians and computer specialists.
Airplanes regularly ferry perishables to restaurants on the island and, when ferries break down, essential supplies.
The more than 100-year history of seaplanes here has a hold on those of the company. Once theft catches the imagination, it tends to be passed down from generation to generation.
Todd Banks, President of Kenmore Air, has worked in the aviation industry for 31 years. His grandfather, Bob Munro, began flying seaplanes on Lake Washington and Lake Union in 1946.
“Seaplanes are a vital part of the transportation system in the Northwest…to access some of the most beautiful places in the world,” Banks said. “It’s been a privilege to be a part of it.”
The 10-passenger DHC-3 Otter is an aging workhorse of this system. It was first built in the 1950s and a total of 466 were produced up to 1967. Almost everyone flying today has upgraded from piston engines to more powerful turbine engines.
The Otter is a familiar sight even to Seattle residents who have never flown there. Kenmore uses it, along with a smaller six-passenger model called the DHC-2 Beaver, on scenic flights that take off from Lake Union and top downtown skyscrapers as they take off.
Weighing just below the 12,500 pound threshold above which regulations require a two-person crew in the cockpit, it is one of the largest aircraft that can be flown by a single pilot.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s aircraft registry shows Northwest Seaplanes, the parent company of Friday Harbor Seaplanes, with just one DHC-3 Otter in its fleet — the one that crashed — along with four DHC-2 Beavers.
Kenmore Air currently has a seaplane fleet consisting of 10 Otters and seven Beavers.
The air navigation site used by pilots shows an average of 119 seaplane landings or takeoffs a day from Kenmore’s Lake Union base and 118 a day from its Lake Washington base in 2019. About a fifth of those are private seaplane operations without commercial passengers.
The same site shows the Lake Washington seaplane base in Renton used by Friday Harbor Seaplanes averaged 46 takeoffs or landings per week in 2020, a year on the decline due to the pandemic.
Most of the previous accidents have happened in the wilderness
The Otter’s ability to take off a short distance and climb quickly, which makes it ideal for Lake Union, also means it is “one of the best bush planes ever built,” said David Gudgel, COO of Kenmore, referring to planes that can land and take off in the Alaskan wilderness.
There the aircraft is used by several small operators for adventurous operations which accounted for the bulk of Otter’s accidents.
“They land in rivers and lakes and fly through mountains,” Gudgel said. “A lot of these (accidents) that I think you will find are pilot errors.
The Geneva-based Aircraft Accident Records Office has compiled a comprehensive database going back 54 years to 1963, which shows 52 fatal DHC-3 Otter crashes, including Sunday’s.
Of these, 21 were military aircraft. The US Army lost a few in Vietnam. Eight others were wheeled versions for land use or fitted with skis for snow landings. Of the 23 fatal civilian seaplane accidents recorded, 19 occurred in North America and resulted in 70 fatalities.
The cause in many cases has been attributed to the pilot choosing to fly in bad weather. A few other accidents were caused by the pilot’s failure to balance the load in the cargo bay before takeoff, shifting the aircraft’s center of gravity.
Mondor said the vast majority of these crashes in the Alaskan backcountry have been “very specific to the pilot’s decision-making about load or weather decisions and not about the aircraft.”
These accidents occurred in a much more hostile environment than scheduled and charter shuttle services operated out of Seattle.
“We don’t care about the terrain and the weather they have to deal with up there. It’s very different,” said Todhunter of Kenmore.
The Swiss database shows no previous accidents for Friday Harbor Seaplanes or its parent company, Northwest Seaplanes.
Kenmore suffered a fatal accident, in October 1977, when seven people died while flying over Stevens Pass in a DHC-2 Beaver. The investigation report found that the pilot failed to balance the plane’s load and made “poor decisions in flight”, flying too low.
In the 45 years that followed, Kenmore had no fatalities.
Analysis of previous DHC-3 Otter accidents leaves Sunday’s accident mysterious.
The flight path was simple. The pilot was experienced.
Although there was a little wind, there was nothing disturbing in the weather.
Chuck Perry, a pilot for more than 36 years and Kenmore’s chief pilot before Todhunter, said the Otter is a heavy, stable aircraft in strong winds.
The plane was full on Sunday, but if the load had been unbalanced it should have been clear on takeoff.
In addition to examining the wreckage once recovered, investigators will review the aircraft’s maintenance records, looking for any mechanical anomalies.
Northwest Seaplanes referred the questions to National Transportation Safety Board investigators.
A stressful time
The entire aviation community has been through a financial crisis that has forced layoffs during the pandemic-induced downturn in air travel. It has strained flight operations everywhere, from Boeing to major airlines to aircraft repair and overhaul shops.
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which provides data for scheduled passenger service but not similar figures for charter flights, shows that Friday Harbor Seaplanes carried nearly 3,400 passengers before COVID 2019, but only half that number in 2020.
However, activity rebounded in 2021, with more than 5,500 passengers transported.
Kenmore’s Banks said that in this “very small niche part of aviation” he knows Shane Carlson quite well, who runs Northwest Seaplanes, founded by his father, Clyde Carlson.
“They’re doing a good job,” Banks said of his smaller competitor.
He texted Shane on Sunday after the accident to express his condolences.
“It’s a tragedy,” Banks said. “It’s just a tough time for us right now.”
Banks said he understands if people are now afraid of flying seaplanes. This week, a customer canceled a charter flight with Kenmore.
“We’re more than happy to reimburse people, or whatever they want to do, if they’re feeling anxious about it,” Banks said.
Todhunter, who spoke on Tuesday before taking off on a sightseeing flight, said he remained “very confident in what we are doing”.
“I don’t know what happened in that accident, I don’t know why it happened,” he said. “But I feel very good about the way we do things. We like to play it safe.
Perry, his predecessor as chief pilot, said: “I really hope they can get this plane out of the water, because it will tell the story.”
“It’s going to be very important in understanding what happened,” he said.