Unalaska Passenger Recounts PenAir Plane's Crash Landing

Oct 18, 2019

The scene of the PenAir plane crash in Unalaska, photographed on the evening of Thursday, Oct. 17.
Credit Megan Thomson-Dean

The Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (APIA) says mental health and counseling services are available to anyone affected by Thursday's plane crash in Unalaska. Call APIA at 581-2751 or 907-359-2743 to connect with providers and access those services.

Before Thursday night’s plane crash, the PenAir pilot had missed his first attempt at landing flight 3296 in Unalaska. So he circled around for a second try.

Patrick Lee, 57, was on the plane returning home with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter.

He said the approach was bumpy. The engines reversed and the flaps went up. But the plane never slowed down.

“I looked out the window and I could see the terminal, and he was flying to the terminal,” said Lee on Friday morning. “I yelled to my wife, ‘He’s not going to stop — we’re going into the water!’ She yelled at my daughter to hunker down and hold on to the baby as tight as possible, which she did.”

As the Saab 2000 twin-engine turboprop, with 42 people aboard, hurtled toward the water at the end of the runway, the pilot jerked the plane to the right, said Lee. It slid across the road before teetering to a stop on a rocky bank just above the water.

In the process, something — Lee thinks it was debris — crashed through the side of the plane above where his daughter Cody was sitting, with her baby in her lap. The two weren’t severely injured, but a man sitting nearby was knocked unconscious.

Eleven passengers were ultimately taken to the Iliuliuk Family and Health Services clinic, with injuries ranging from “minor to critical,” said a statement from local officials. One passenger, David Oltman, 38, died from traumatic injuries suffered during the crash, and another was medevaced back to Anchorage for treatment.

Unalaska’s 4,500-foot runway sits below Mount Ballyhoo with water on both sides. Pilots often face strong winds, and they’re sometimes forced to divert to a longer jet runway in the community of Cold Bay, nearly 200 miles northeast.    

Lee, who runs a heavy equipment shop and has lived in Unalaska for more than 30 years, compares the Unalaska runway to landing on an aircraft carrier. He and his family were returning from a trip to Idaho for medical appointments and seeing friends.

He said the PenAir flight was smooth until it ran into turbulence on its approach to the airport, as it descended below the clouds. Even so, he said, “We’ve landed in far worse weather.”

On the pilot’s first attempt at landing, Lee said, he came higher than normal. “I could look at the ground and knew he was going way too fast,” he said.

After circling around Mount Ballyhoo, the pilot lined up again. He hit the ground “a little hard,” though not unusually so, said Lee. But “it was almost like he didn’t have brakes.”

“It was either that, or he was maybe thinking he could pop back up again,” he said.

The plane ran off the end of the runway and the pilot swerved, which Lee said likely stopped it from sliding into the water. 

“It was a pretty violent crash,” he said.

Lee said only one of the plane’s emergency hatches would open, and passengers focused on unloading the women and children onboard, including 11 students from Cordova’s swim team, which was visiting for a meet.

They also tried to move the unconscious man before emergency responders took over, he said.

Lee’s granddaughter had a little bump on her head, and his daughter Cody’s hand was smashed. She went to the clinic afterward to get it checked out, but it was so busy that the family left to allow staff to help more seriously injured passengers.

Lee credited the quick action of volunteers and other emergency responders.

“They were there fast,” said Lee. “The community really came together.”