Wayne Koecher Jr., 01-02-06

Son dies, dad lives in plane crash

BEAR LAKE GLACIER: Bad weather kept rescuers away for hours.

By JULIA O'MALLEY Anchorage Daily News

Published: January 4, 2006Wayne Koecher

After circling for hours over socked-in Bear Lake Glacier on Monday, the helicopter carrying Alaska Air National Guard pararescuer Ben Walker finally caught a break in the weather, dropped in and lowered Walker and his partner to the deep powder snow.

By the dusky light of flares, Walker glimpsed the wreckage of a single-engine airplane.

"It was pretty well augured in. The left side was peeled back," he said. "The wing was still there but not connected to the plane like it should have been."

Nearby, on a steep embankment, he saw Cooper Landing residents Wayne Koecher, 60, and his son, Wayne Koecher Jr., 24, under a tarp. Immediately, Walker could tell the situation on the isolated snowfield about seven miles east of Seward was more complicated than he had thought.

"Earlier (from the air), all we saw was one person moving down there, and we were pretty sure it was going to be a one-person pickup," Walker said.

"When I got down there and talked to (Wayne Koecher), he said there was another person there and a dog. He said that his son had been alive after the crash, but he wasn't sure how he was now."

At that point, the Pave Hawk helicopter and the HC-130 airplane that accompanied it were low on fuel. Walker estimated he and his partner, Dave Johnson, had 20 minutes to rescue the men.

"We were all cutting it pretty close," Walker said.

First, Walker and Johnson loaded the younger Koecher, who had been bleeding, into a rescue basket lowered from the helicopter, and Johnson took him up.

As Walker helped the young man's father, who had seriously injured a leg, into the basket, he called for the dog, a chocolate Lab.

"The dog was on the other side of the aircraft, buried in the snow, not moving," he said. "I went around and yelled and it popped up. I dragged it over to the litter and strapped him in."

The father was conscious during the flight out. "He was very concerned about his son," Walker said.

After the flight to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, the younger Koecher was pronounced dead, according to a report from the Alaska State Troopers. The elder Koecher remained in stable condition Tuesday. The dog was taken by an on-call veterinarian.

The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating the crash Tuesday, said Jim LaBelle, NTSB regional director. No flight plan had been filed, he said. Investigators could not talk to Koecher because he was in surgery, he said.

"(Wayne Koecher) said something about a down-draft," Walker said. "He tried to escape down the valley and lost control."

Airflow coming from the mountains can push a plane down faster than it can climb, Walker said.

There was no mayday distress call over the radio before the crash, according to Tech. Sgt. Terry Kurth with the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Fort Richardson.

The Coast Guard picked up a signal from the Cessna 185's emergency locator device around noon Monday, but rescuers were unable to reach the site until 8 p.m. because of the weather, Kurth said.

Wayne Koecher Jr. was a 1999 graduate of Skyview High School in Soldotna, according to the school's Web site. His father holds an airline transport pilot certification, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Koecher family was not available to comment Tuesday.


Daily News reporter Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@adn.com or 257-4325.