A plane that was leased by the West Valley Flying Club of Palo Alto crashed 40 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, on Wednesday, killing two people, Alaska State Troopers have confirmed.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Clint Johnson confirmed on Thursday afternoon that two people died. State troopers and the Alaska Civil Air Patrol in Fairbanks launched a recovery effort, but the operation was delayed by bad weather and low clouds.
Alaska television station KTUU reported late this afternoon that the crash victims have been identified by the state troopers office as pilot Stephen Knight, 64, and Gillian Knight, 60, both of Queensland, Australia.
Johnson said the plane, a Piper PA 32-301 Saratoga, was heading from Fort Yukon to Fairbanks shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday when it disappeared from the radar. It was a single-engine, high-performance six-seat aircraft. Weather conditions were poor and foggy at the time of the crash, and the plane went down in a mountainous area, he said.
The aircraft was discovered about two hours after it was reported missing. Troopers and a rescue team flying over the area in a helicopter and C-130 aircraft reported the plane was burning after the crash.
Megan Peters, spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers, said the plane's pilot initially made contact with a control tower to ask a question. When the tower controller responded back, the pilot did not answer. Then the plane went off radar, she said.
Johnson said the aircraft was one of two and possibly three that were part of the flight club and they were all flying to the same place.
The pilot had not yet filed a flight plan, but at the time the call was made to the control tower the pilot was in the process of filing an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) plan, he said. IFR plans are filed when a pilot switches from visual to instrumental navigation.
Johnson said he could not speculate about why the pilot wanted to switch to instrument navigation, but generally the procedure is done under poor weather conditions, he said.
Lee Price, owner of Palo Alto-based aircraft-rental company LNP Saratoga, confirmed the plane belonged to his company. He said the plane was rented to an Australian couple who left Palo Alto about a week ago. The couple was to fly through Canada and Alaska and back to the mainland United States. He referred further inquiries about the incident to the West Valley Flying Club, which leased the plane.
West Valley Flying Club of Palo Alto provides flight training at the Palo Alto and San Carlos municipal airports.
Calls to West Valley have not yet been returned. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.