A helicopter carrying guides and guests on a heli-skiing excursion in Alaska slammed into a mountain and then rolled downhill hundreds of feet, killing the pilot and four of the five passengers, officials said today.
Among the dead in the Saturday evening (Sunday NZT) crash was billionaire Petr Kellner, the richest man in the Czech Republic.
The survivor, who has not been identified, was taken to an Anchorage hospital and listed in serious but stable condition on Sunday.
The chartered helicopter, an Airbus AS350 B3, was "conducting heli-ski operations in an area of steep and remote terrain within the Chugach Mountains near Knik Glacier", National Transportation Safety Board member Tom Chapman said today.
The crash site, about 34 kilometres southeast of Palmer, is only accessibly by helicopter because of the rugged terrain and snowy conditions. Palmer is located about 72km north of Anchorage.
Recovery of the bodies was accelerated on Sunday because another snowstorm is forecast. The bodies were turned over to the Alaska State Medical Examiner.
Clint Johnson, the NTSB's chief in the Alaska division, was also able to document the crash site with photos from the air "before the snowfall could obscure the site", Chapman said.
Recovery of the wreckage is now the main focus for investigators, but that timing is uncertain given the terrain and forecast of additional snow.
The five people killed were identified as Kellner, 56, and Benjamin Larochaix, 50, both of the Czech Republic; Gregory Harms, 52, of Colorado; and two Alaska residents, Sean McManamy, 38, of Girdwood, and the pilot, Zachary Russell, 33, of Anchorage.
The five passengers included three guests and two guides from the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, said company spokesperson Mary Ann Pruitt.
Kellner was a businessman with a net worth over US$17 billion (NZ$24b), according to the Forbes 2020 list of the world's richest people.
Kellner owned a 98.93 per cent stake in the PPF Group, an international investment company. The group operates in 25 countries in Europe, Asia and North America with assets of US$52b. PPF Group confirmed Kellner's death.
"His professional life was known for his incredible work ethic and creativity, but his private life belonged to his family," a message posted on the PPF Group website said.
Kellner and Larochaix "were loyal and frequent" guests at the lodge, Pruitt said in an email to The Associated Press. Vacation packages at the lodge start at US$15,000 per person.
Chapman, the NTSB member, said based on Johnson's observations, the helicopter appears to have hit the mountain about four metres below a ridgeline. The helicopter then rolled about 250m downhill.
Using satellite-based signals broadcast from the helicopter, the NTSB said the aircraft was last heard from at 6.34pm on Saturday and reported overdue at about 8.30pm. Another operator participating in the search found and identified the wreckage about an hour later, Chapman said.
Chapman said the team investigating the crash will look at airworthiness, operations, meteorology, structures, helicopter performance, recording devices and human performance.
The NTSB is also hoping to interview the survivor. It's not yet known if there was any type of communication from the pilot before the crash.